Chambers asked both sides to provide him with scheduling information by April 15 so he can set further hearings on the two lawsuits. The judge ruled that the companies were violating permit limits, and said further hearings will be held to decide the scope of injunctive relief and civil penalties.
Citizen groups and their lawyers have been pursuing actions over selenium pollution as scientists and federal regulators express concerns that mining discharges are threatening aquatic life.
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, selenium can be toxic.
Selenium impacts the reproductive system of many aquatic species, can impair the development and survival of fish, and can damage gills and other organs of aquatic organisms subject to prolonged exposure.
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 for many operations.
In another case, Chambers held Patriot Coal in contempt of court and ordered the company to install equipment to clean up selenium pollution at two of its operations in Southern West Virginia.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.