Coal Tattoo

More selenium problems: Violations found at Ky. mines


Here in West Virginia, a leading scientist has warned state regulators that selenium pollution from mountaintop removal mining has pushed the Mud River watershed to “the brink of a major toxic event.”

West Virginia regulators have generally bent over backwards to help the coal industry avoid having to reduce this pollution and eliminate selenium violations. But earlier this year, when lawmakers passed a bill giving coal operators three more years to comply, even the state Department of Environmental Protection thought it was going too far.

Now, evidence has surfaced that there are growing selenium problems in the coalfields over in Kentucky — and allegations that regulators there sat on the information until they got a new, industry-wide general permit approved without selenium limits or comprehensive selenium monitoring.

Environmental groups today are releasing the results of the  water monitoring and fish tissue sampling that shows violations of the state’s water quality standard for selenium and of the level of selenium experts consider safe in fish.

Some of the sampling was done in September 2007, but was not made public until recently — and not until after July, when Kentucky re-issued its “general permit” that covers water pollution discharges from coal mining operations.

Margaret Janes, a researcher with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, had been trying for two years to get the information — and could not get it in time to submit comments about it during the review permit for that general permit:

The state of Kentucky inappropriately withheld information requested through the Freedom of Information Act. No one should have to wait nearly two years to find out what dangerous toxins are in their fish and their water.

I put in a call to a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection, but have not heard back yet from him.

But the Appalachian Center, the Sierra Club and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance are hoping to use this data on selenium in Kentucky to draw more attention to what they feel is a growing problem from mountaintop removal that is not being addressed.

In West Virginia, the coal industry has been scrambling to find ways to avoid complying with existing water quality standards for selenium for several years, since federal studies found dangerous levels of selenium runoff from mountaintop removal mines in Southern West Virginia. A federal judge and the state Environmental Quality Board have both found that the industry has been stalling its efforts to stop selenium violations. (Also see Stalling on selenium?)

As this Sierra Club fact sheet points out, selenium is a mineral that is beneficial to health in tiny, tiny amounts. But it can also be very dangerous, especially to fish and other aquatic life, at only slightly larger amounts.  That makes regulating it tricky, but also especially important, given the thin margin of safety involved.

I’m posting the four Kentucky selenium reports here, here, here and here for anybody who is interested.  The sites marked with an A are at the toes of valley fills. Sites with a B are ponds, and sites with C are downstream.

In all, Kentucky surveyed 13 sites in the state’s eastern coalfields, including six active mining sites, two “reclaimed” coal sites, and one abandoned coal mine. They also looked at two reference sites and two sites located at road cuts.

The results? Here’s how the environmental groups summarized them:

At one active coal mining site and one road cut site, water downstream from the disturbance exceeded state water quality standards for selenium. Additional water quality data showed elevated levels of selenium on the mining sites.

Notably, researchers also found fish at three of the nine mining sites whose bodies’ selenium content exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft recommendations for selenium in fish tissue.

Downstream from five other mining sites and both road cut sites, researchers found fish with selenium levels at which scientists have found can cause adverse effects in sensitive species.

(FYI, the water quality standard for selenium in Kentucky is 5.0 parts per billion, the same as in West Virginia. (That’s for chronic effects on aquatic life). EPA proposed, but never finalized a fish tissue standard of 7.9 parts per million. Leading experts on selenium, though, say that levels in fish as low as 4.0 parts per million can damage fish.)

Judy Peterson, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance,  said:

This is simply unforgivable. We’ve expressed concern about the lack of selenium limits in mining permits for years now and the agency has responded that there is no known problem and therefore no reason for selenium limits in permits.

Selenium, like mercury, doesn’t degrade in the environment so the problem will only get worse. We need the Division of Water to act now to set limits in permits and require regular monitoring to protect people and wildlife in eastern Kentucky.

It’s interesting to note that most mining discharges in Kentucky are regulated only under a general Clean Water Act permit. In West Virginia, few mining operations are authorized through this streamlined process. The WVDEP requires individual NPDES permits for mining operations.

And, the new general permit in Kentucky  requires for selenium only a one-site sampling sometime during the five-year life of a permit authorization. It sets no limits on selenium discharges.

Lauren McGrath in Kentucky with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said:

By delaying the disclosure of public data about toxic selenium levels in Kentucky’s waterways, the state has been allowing the coal industry to operate without regard to water quality or human health. The spotlight is now on Kentucky to hold the coal industry accountable and to clean up its waterways.