CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal judge ruled Monday that Patriot Coal continues to violate water-quality limits on selenium, and scheduled a hearing for early August to consider steps to stop the company's delays in cleaning up the illegal pollution.
U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers criticized Patriot Coal's Hobet Mining subsidiary and the state Department of Environmental Protection for continuing to try to put off deadlines for complying with selenium limits at the company's sprawling Hobet 21 mountaintop-removal complex along the Boone-Lincoln county line.
"Hobet's track record of non-compliance and the WVDEP's history of acquiescing to deadline extensions and other modifications to ease permit requirements suggest compliance is not likely without intervention on the part of this court," Chambers wrote in a 55-page opinion.
Chambers did not immediately issue an injunction, instead scheduling a hearing for Aug. 9 to consider the scope of a court order. The judge had already set a hearing that same date to consider a request from environmental groups to hold another Patriot operation in contempt of court for continuing its selenium violations.
Chambers ruled on the latest in a number of legal actions brought by the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and the Sierra Club over violations by the coal industry of West Virginia's legal limits on selenium runoff from strip mines.
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, though, selenium can be toxic. Very small amounts have been found to cause reproductive problems in aquatic life.
In 2003, a broad federal government study of mountaintop-removal mining found repeated violations of water-quality limits on selenium. Biologist A. Dennis Lemly, one of the nation's foremost experts on selenium, has said that pollution from the Hobet operation has left the Mud River ecosystem "on the brink of a major toxic event."