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Selenium case could be settled

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bellwether over selenium water pollution from the coal industry appears headed for an early close, or even a possible settlement, according to court documents filed Thursday afternoon.

Lawyers for Patriot Coal and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition asked U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers to give them more time to negotiate a deal, according to the court documents.

Testimony in the case began Monday and had been scheduled to continue Thursday and Friday. But Thursday morning's court session was canceled and the parties returned later in the day to ask for additional time.

Chambers scheduled a hearing for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in federal court in Huntington.

In the case, Chambers has combined two ongoing cases against St. Louis-based Patriot Coal over selenium discharges from its mines in Southern West Virginia.

One case concerns continuing selenium violations at Patriot's Hobet 21 complex along the Boone-Lincoln county border. In June, Chambers ruled against the company regarding Hobet 21, but did not immediately say what Patriot must do about the problem.

The other case concerns Patriot's Ruffner Mine in Logan County. Environmentalists want the judge to hold the company in contempt for not meeting a court-approved April deadline for cleaning up that operation's selenium discharges.

Environmentalists believe the Patriot case could set policy for how selenium pollution is dealt with across the coal industry in Appalachia.

Selenium, a naturally occurring element found in many rocks and soils, is an antioxidant needed in very small amounts for good health. In slightly larger amounts, selenium can be toxic.

In 2003, a broad federal government study of mountaintop-removal mining found repeated violations of water quality limits for selenium. The following year, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report warned of more selenium problems downstream from major mining operations.

Since then, coal lobbyists have tried unsuccessfully to weaken the state's selenium limits, but have persuaded the state Department of Environmental Protection to repeatedly delay compliance deadlines. The Obama administration's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun to object to those delays, and is considering issuing an even tougher selenium standard.

Patriot's Hobet 21, Ruffner and Samples operations have been the focus of a complicated series of lawsuits, made more complex by moves by the Legislature and the Manchin administration to ease compliance deadlines and head off lawsuits by citizen groups.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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