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.