CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The House of Delegates on Friday approved legislation that mining lobbyists hope will lead West Virginia to weaken its water pollution limit for toxic selenium discharges from coal operations.
Delegates voted 99-0 to approve the bill (HB2579) and send it on to the Senate.
House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said the bill is "an important one for the coal industry" and would revise the state's current water quality standard for selenium.
Miley urged fellow lawmakers to approve the bill "so that the coal industry is not crippled," citing what he said were "punishing fines" for violations of the existing pollution limit.
"This bill creates flexibility," said Miley, whose committee approved the bill Monday.
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.
In 2003, a broad federal government study of mountaintop removal mining 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 that selenium discharges have deformed fish downstream from mining operations in the Mud River watershed.
The House-approved bill itself does not change the current West Virginia selenium standard. Instead, the legislation would require the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop within two months a new "implementation plan for the selenium current criteria."
Under the bill, the DEP plan must include:
• Implementing the current criteria -- 5 micrograms per liter -- as a "threshold standard."
• Monitoring any selenium discharges to determine which form of the pollutant is being emitted.
• Surveying fish populations in any waterways "to assess any possible impacts" from sites where that threshold criteria is exceeded.