UPDATED: Here’s a link to today’s Gazette story on yesterday’s hearing.
This afternoon in federal court in Huntington, lawyers, scientists and economists will debate deformed fish, water pollution treatment systems and compliance costs … It’s the first day of what is expected to be a week-long hearing that amounts to a major showdown over selenium discharges by surface coal mines in Appalachia.
This side view of a fish larva taken from the Mud River Reservoir shows both eyes on the same side of the head, a key indication of likely selenium poisoning.
One of the world’s foremost experts on selenium, Dennis Lemly, has warned that selenium pollution is pushing the Mud River Watershed to “the brink of a major toxic event.”
Coal industry officials have tried unsuccessfully to weaken West Virginia’s water quality standards for selenium, arguing that the discharges aren’t really that bad. And the state Department of Environmental Protection — agreeing with the industry that treatment systems deemed to be affordable aren’t available — has repeatedly helped the industry delay dates for complying with the standard.
Even Judge Chambers has been pretty patient, serving the industry harsh words in several of his rulings, but continuing to give compliance extensions and not really cracking down on mine operators the way environmentalists had hoped he would.
In his June ruling, Judge Chambers indicated again that his patience is wearing thin, both with Patriot Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining and with state regulators:
Hobet’s track record of non-compliance and the WVDEP’s history of acquiescing to deadline extensions and other modifications to ease permit requirements suggest compliance is not likely without intervention on the part of this court.
Look for environmental group lawyers to again urge Judge Chambers to institute a firm compliance schedule, and for the industry to argue for more time (and probably that this selenium stuff really isn’t anything to worry about anyway). And stay tuned to maybe find out a lot more about which of the various treatment test projects have worked, which haven’t, and whether the real issue here — as citizen groups say — is just the coal industry’s desire to avoid spending the money required to clean up this pollution.
I’ll be covering the hearing today for the Gazette, so be sure to visit our Web site for an update late this afternoon.