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Interests clash on selenium runoff bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coal industry supporters on Monday depicted a water quality bill making its way through the Legislature as another move to protect West Virginia mine operators from "extreme and punitive" federal environmental policies.

But opponents of the legislation -- which would move West Virginia toward rewriting its pollution limits for toxic selenium -- say it is nothing but an effort to allow mountaintop removal operators to avoid the true cost of doing business.

"We would like to have West Virginia's extractive industries play by the rules, and not keep trying to change the rules," said Gary Zuckett, executive director of West Virginia-Citizen Action Group.

Zuckett was among the speakers in an afternoon House Judiciary Committee public hearing on HB2579, whose authors say is a bill "to protect state waters by creating an implementation plan to establish state specific selenium criteria."

Dianne Bady, of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said that description of the legislation is "a ludicrously dishonest statement," and cited a string of government and independent studies that found damage from selenium.

"In reality, the purpose of this bill is to allow mountaintop removal companies to pollute the state's streams with levels of selenium that are known to cause serious harm to fish and other aquatic life," Bady told lawmakers.

In a committee meeting following the public hearing, judiciary members voted to advance the legislation, according to The Associated Press.

The bill is the latest in a long series of efforts by coal-friendly lawmakers to help the mining industry either delay or avoid altogether costly requirements to limit selenium runoff from Southern West Virginia mining operations.

Selenium discharges from mountaintop removal have been increasingly linked with water-quality violations, and scientists are concerned about developmental damage and reproductive problems in fish populations downstream from mining.

The state's limit for selenium, based on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommendation, has been on the books for years, but only began generating controversy in the last decade or so, after federal government studies found violations and citizen group lawyers began litigation to force compliance.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the industry has a "tremendous problem" with the state's existing selenium limit and that mine operators are spending "tens of millions of dollars" to comply.

Ted Hapney, a lobbyist for the United Mine Workers union, joined industry officials in supporting the bill.

"Our members live in these communities," Hapney said. "They fish the streams, and they want clean water."

The legislation at issue would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop an implementation plan to follow the existing selenium limit as a "threshold standard." But that plan would also require the DEP to begin new selenium monitoring and to use data from that monitoring to eventually write a state-specific selenium limit.

"Selenium is not some evil, malignant, mad-scientist creation from the coal industry," said Jason Bostic, a coal association vice president. "We seek to bring some sanity to our state's water quality standards for selenium."

As coal industry officials argued, selenium is a naturally occurring element found in many rocks and soils, and it is an antioxidant needed in very small amounts for good health.

But in slightly larger amounts, selenium can be toxic. Selenium damages the reproductive cycle of many aquatic species, can impair the development and survival of fish, and can damage gills or other organs of aquatic organisms subject to prolonged exposure. It can also be toxic to humans, causing kidney and liver damage, as well as damage to the nervous and circulatory systems.

Coal industry officials are fond of pointing out that West Virginia's current long-term aquatic life water quality standard for selenium, 5 micrograms per liter, is far more stringent than the EPA's drinking water standard of 50 micrograms per liter. But selenium bioaccumulates, meaning that a certain concentration in water has the potential to build up by several orders of magnitude by the time it reaches fish and wildlife.

In 2003, a broad federal government study of mountaintop removal found repeated violations of West Virginia's selenium standard downstream from mining operations. The following year, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report warned of more selenium problems downstream from mining sites. In December 2011, a peer-reviewed paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded selenium discharges have deformed fish downstream from mining operations in the Mud River watershed.

"To me, this [bill] is not about water quality or selenium, but pure politics," said Rob Goodwin of the group Coal River Mountain Watch.

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


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