Coal Tattoo

Selenium update: Is WVDEP stopping or stalling?

We’ve asked before here on Coal Tattoo whether the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is stopping selenium pollution or stalling efforts to force compliance with existing water quality standards.

Well, here’s what agency officials have done in their latest legal maneuver on selenium … you decide what WVDEP is up to.

Back between Christmas and New Year’s the WVDEP’s lawyers filed in court a proposal to settle a lawsuit they had filed against International Coal Group’s ICG Eastern operations in Webstre Circuit Court.

Under the deal, ICG would pay $228,750 in fines — which, as WVDEP penalties go, is not insignificant.

But what about compliance? What about stopping selenium discharge violations at the ICG surface mining operations involved in the suit?

Well,WVDEP had at least twice given ICG more time to fix its violations, with the latest compliance deadline being April 5, 2010. ICG asked for still more time, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency objected. WVDEP decided to take the company to court, a move that environmental groups see as a way to head off a separate citizen suit to try to force compliance.

In its proposed settlement, WVDEP notes that ICG previously installed wetlands treatment systems at several of its discharge outlets and that those systems “have shown promise in reducing selenium levels, but have not yet had time to fully mature and are not yet functioning as designed.”  WVDEP continued:

ICG Eastern has also continued to evaluate various outlets’ selenium levels over time to understand and address problem areas, and continues to evaluate other treatment options for outlets where there is not sufficient area to construct a wetland treatment system, including, but not limited to, several different types of zero valent iron treatment technology and microbial/biological treatment technology.

And WVDEP went on:

There are technologies under development by ICG Eastern and others, implemented on pilot scale, for the treatment of selenium in discharge. The parties agree that there is currently no technology that has been proven on a full scale basis to consistently reduce selenium levels, but recognize that information available to parties, including information related to ICG Eastern’s treatment efforts, provides a reasonable basis upon which to conclude that ICG Eastern will achieve compliance with its final selenium limits by the dates set forth herein.

Those dates? Some outlets must comply with selenium limits by Aug. 1, 2012. Others have until Dec. 1, 2012. But at the same time, WVDEP has not required ICG to settle on a technology, let alone one that has proven it will work.

Compare that to what U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers did in the Patriot Coal litigation, where the judge — tired of stalling by the company — heard testimony on various treatment plans and then ordered the company to install one that the testimony convinced him would work.

If you have any thoughts, the comment period on the WVDEP’s proposed settlement runs through Feb. 3.  You can send them to Office of Legal Services, WV Department of Environmental Protection, 601 57th Street, S.E., Charleston, WV 25304.