Coal Tattoo

Earlier today, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups filed two major new lawsuits in their continuing effort to stop illegal discharges of toxic selenium from coal-mining operations in West Virginia.

The suits were filed in U.S. District Court here in Charleston in Huntington against subsidiaries of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy and St. Louis-based Arch Coal.

Lawyers for OVEC and for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Coal River Mountain Watch and the Sierra Club filed the suits just days after a significant ruling in another selenium case, in which U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers blasted Patriot Coal’s Hobet Mining subsidiary and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection for continuing to delay the cleanup of selenium violations across the state’s southern coalfields.

These cases are all part of a number of legal actions brought by various citizen groups  to try to force the coal industry and regulators to stop violating water quality standards for selenium runoff.  Recall that one of the world’s top experts on selenium has already concluded that mining pollution from Hobet’s complex along the Boone-Lincoln county line has left the Mud River ecosystem “on the brink of a major toxic event.”

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, though, selenium can be toxic. Very small amounts have been found to cause reproductive problems in aquatic life.

One of the new lawsuits targets Massey’s Independence Coal Co. and Jacks Branch Coal Co. subsidiaries and their Twilight MTR Surface Mine in Boone and Raleigh counties, the Red Cedar Surface Mine No. 1 in Boone County and the Kanawha Division Surface Mines in Kanawha County. The other was filed against Arch’s Coal-Mac Inc. and Mingo Logan Coal Co. subsidiaries and their Hobet No. 7 mine in Logan and Mingo counties,  the Left Fork No. 2 Mine in Logan County, and the Gut Fork Surface Mine in Logan County.

Now, these are mostly operations whose WVDEP-set “compliance schedule” to fix selenium violations expired on April 5, 2010, without state officials granting an extension of the compliance deadlines.

Recall that a big part of the story here is that environmental groups — not to mention  Judge Chambers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — believe WVDEP has been far too easy on selenium violators, giving coal companies repeated extensions of compliance deadlines with no end in sight. And, citizen group lawyers have alleged that WVDEP has filed its own suit against selenium violators to try to head of more aggressive legal action by the federal government or environmental organizations.

Interestingly, last week and this week, WVDEP has itself filed suits in state court against more than a dozen mining operations over selenium and other water pollution violations.  And many of those cases target operations where WVDEP has sought to grant additional compliance extensions, but faces strong objections to those actions by the Obama EPA.

In its suits, WVDEP asks various circuit judges to set up new compliance schedules for those operations — exactly what EPA said it would not allow state officials to do.