What’s EPA up to on selenium?

May 16, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

Gina McCarthy

Scientists remain very concerned about the impacts of selenium discharges from coal mines on aquatic life in Appalachian streams, so environmentalists are rightly a little concerned about the latest maneuver by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Earlier this week, EPA announced in the Federal Register that it was circulating for review yet another draft of potential changes to its recommended water quality standard for selenium.  The document itself is here and EPA has also posted this “Fact Sheet” about the draft.

Taylor Kuykendall over at SNL Financial had a story on this issue, reporting it this way:

The U.S. EPA is taking comments on recommended federal water quality criteria for selenium with a focus on concentrations found in fish, a change that could disrupt the momentum of environmental groups who have used the current standard in numerous victories over the coal industry.

… Dalal Aboulhosn, the Sierra Club’s clean water policy expert, told SNL Energy that the mineral is frequently found in toxic levels in streams below Appalachia surface coal mines.

“We intend to give scientific and real world examples to EPA’s request for public comment on its proposed revised criterion for the pollutant selenium,” Aboulhosn said. “The practice of mountaintop removal strip mining has proven time and again to be completely destructive of the environment and dangerous to the health of communities living in the shadows of these massive mines.”

Operators in West Virginia and Kentucky, the two states where meeting selenium standards has caused the most headaches for coal mining companies, have sought changes to state standards in light of numerous costs imposed fighting environmental lawsuits regarding selenium. Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said it is “very encouraging” that the EPA is considering a standard that incorporates fish tissue concentrations.

“That’s been part of the problem with selenium now going on 20 years,” Bostic said. “There’s been a recognition within the scientific community, I think, that selenium deserved a different standard versus a water column measurement. We just couldn’t get EPA to move in that direction.”

Bostic said selenium changes chemical composition very easily and comes in many forms, making it a “very problematic” pollutant for coal operators to treat.

Now, it’s important to remember that science has also found pretty selenium discharges from mining operations are linked to serious problems for aquatic life, with a recent paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reporting that increased conductivity, sulfates and selenium concentrations in mountaintop removal-affected streams:

… Have been linked to losses of sensitive aquatic biota throughout the central Appalachians. The Mud River reservoir (located 11 km downstream of the last Hobet Mine outfall) has a very high incidence of Se-related developmental deformities in the larvae of bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus) and largemouth bass ((Mircopterus salmoides). Instances of adults with physical deformities consistent with selenium toxicity have been observed on the mainstem of the Upper Mud River.

So while it’s true that selenium lawsuits have become an effective tool for citizen groups, it’s not like the court are just ruling with those citizens for the heck of it. Selenium is a serious issue for water quality and aquatic life in the coalfields. So while Jason Bostic is pretty happy, at least initially, about this development, here’s what the folks from Appalachian Voices had to say:

EPA is proposing a more complicated system for measuring selenium. Currently, the recommended standard for selenium consists of a four-day average concentration in water of 5 parts per billion (ppb). As proposed, the new rule will primarily rely on testing for the pollutant in fish tissue, a more complex method of monitoring than stream water testing. The complexity of this new standard will make it more difficult and expensive to implement for state agencies, industries, and concerned citizens.

The new standard does include water-based testing, but increases the recommended testing period from four days to 30 days. The new standard can be adjusted for fewer days of testing, if necessary. Under that provision, the new allowable selenium concentration for a four-day time period would be seven times higher than the current standard.

If the Obama administration really is fighting a war against the coal industry, isn’t this selenium proposal a funny way to do it?

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