Selenium impacts 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. In humans it can cause deadly kidney and liver damage, as well as damage to the nervous and circulatory systems.
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 DEP 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.
In the hearing, Chambers had combined two cases against Patriot over selenium discharges from its mines in Southern West Virginia. One case concerns continuing selenium violations at the Hobet 21 complex. 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. Environmentalists wanted the judge to hold the company in contempt for not meeting a court-approved April deadline to clean up that operation's selenium discharges.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.