Selenium is a naturally occurring element that surface mining can release into waterways. In humans, high-level exposure can damage the kidneys, liver, and central nervous and circulatory systems.
The EPA recommends that selenium levels in streams not exceed a long-term average of 5 micrograms per liter and not exceed 20 micrograms per liter at any one time.
Counter intuitively, the EPA has a much higher tolerable threshold -- 50 micrograms per liter -- for drinking water than it does for waterways near mines. The EPA did not respond to questions about the disparity between the numbers.
Tom Clarke, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said that the higher threshold for drinking water probably has to do with the fundamental differences between humans and aquatic life.
"People are larger and much more complex organisms than some of the organisms living in our streams and therefore are capable of absorbing and ingesting higher concentrations of selenium without being harmed,'' Clarke said. "And another thing is how much water you drink a day is different than a tadpole that is constantly exposed over its whole body.''
Delegate Rupert Phillips, D-Logan, the bill's lead sponsor, said that he didn't want the EPA or any group outside of West Virginia setting selenium levels for the state. He blamed the selenium regulations for the recent bankruptcy of Patriot Coal, which has put the pensions and health-care benefits of 20,000 retired miners and their families at risk.
"You've got two different worlds, bugs and people, so you know people first,'' Phillips said. "I'll fight for the coal industry until I'm dead.''