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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.