Sierra Club pressures new EPA chief on selenium

August 22, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Gina McCarthy

We’ve written before about the ongoing issue in Kentucky regarding that state’s water quality standards for selenium, and of course this remains a major issue in West Virginia following the passage of new legislation during the session earlier this year.

Now, the Sierra Club is trying to gear up on this issue even more, sending a new letter this week to Gina McCarthy, the Obama administration’s newly confirmed administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. You can read the letter here, and this is a bit of what it says:

I am writing you today to ask that the Environmental Protection Agency reject Kentucky’s proposed revisions to its selenium water quality standards and to require strong, enforceable water-column based standards that will protect all aquatic life. Right now, this critical issue is being decided by your staff in the Office of Water and Region 4. EPA has the authority to reject the weak and ineffective revised standards set by Kentucky, and as our ally in protecting water quality around Appalachia and the country I ask that you deny these revised standards.

The Kentucky Division of Water has proposed increasing the acute selenium standard to more than 12 times its currentlevel, and moving the chronic standard to a fish tissue standard that will be effectively unenforceable. Kentucky’s adoption of a fish tissue criterion for an aquatic life water quality standard (as opposed to a human health fish consumption standard) would be wholly unprecedented. Kentucky has already demonstrated that it lacks the capacity and commitment to enforce the current straightforward water column based standards, as shown by the state’s failure to impose selenium effluent limits on a single coal mine despite abundant evidence of high selenium discharges. Fish tissue sampling is much more costly and time-intensive, and therefore Kentucky is even less likely to enforce the proposed standards. Fish tissue sampling also presumes the presence of fish in the receiving streams, but most fish species have already been extirpated from the streams below coal mines. Citizen groups who currently fill the enforcement gap will similarly be unable to satisfy the burdensome fish tissue sampling requirements, leaving the revised standards unenforced.

EPA must reject Kentucky’s claims that its revised standards will be protective of the environment and surrounding communities. EPA’s decision will set a precedent for selenium standards across Appalachia. The other Appalachian states have made clear that they intend to follow Kentucky’s example and weaken their own selenium standards if EPA accepts Kentucky’s proposed revisions. This would allow for unacceptably high levels of selenium in waterways across the region, causing widespread injury to aquatic life. EPA has been an ally to citizens of Appalachia where their local and state officials have repeatedly failed to uphold their legal obligations to control the pollution from mountaintop removal. Ending the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining is a high priority for Sierra Club. If EPA approves Kentucky’s weakened selenium standards, it will be an enormous step backward in the effort to protect the communities and environment of Appalachia. I urge you to reject Kentucky’s ineffective selenium standards.

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