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Feds urge state to take closer look at selenium, mines

Published: Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Page: P1C
Byline: Ken Ward Jr. Federal government biologists have found troubling amounts of the toxic chemical selenium in fish downstream from mountaintop removal mine sites, according to a new report.

Late last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urged state regulators to more closely examine selenium discharges from coal mining.

On Friday, fish and wildlife officials gave the state Department of Environmental Protection the results of its new study of selenium levels in fish downstream from mining operations.

"We believe that the potential for release of selenium during and after mining should be assessed to ensure that future permits are not issued where there is a likelihood that selenium water quality standards will be violated," wrote David Densmore, supervisor of the service's regional office, in a letter to Allyn Turner, director of the DEP Division of Water and Waste Management.

During this year's legislative session, coal industry lobbyists want to weaken West Virginia's water quality rules for selenium.

Environmentalists are trying to force state mining regulators to more closely scrutinize selenium discharged by coal mining.

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has appealed a permit that DEP granted in September 2003 to Coal-Mac Inc.

Coal-Mac, an arm of St. Louis-based mining giant Arch Coal Inc., wants to expand its Phoenix Surface Mine operation along Cow Creek, a tributary of Island Creek in Logan County.

Conservancy lawyers argue that DEP should have required the company to test for selenium in its coal and the rock and dirt it removes to get at the coal.

"If elevated selenium levels are found, the material must be isolated from contact with surface and ground water to avoid further selenium pollution," they said in their appeal.

A hearing on that issue is scheduled to start this morning before the state Surface Mine Board.

Selenium is a naturally occurring mineral element that is found is many rocks and soils. In very tiny amounts, it is an antioxidant and is needed for good health.

But in only slightly greater amounts, selenium is highly toxic. In humans, it can cause hair loss, nail brittleness and neurological problems such as numbness. In aquatic life, very small amounts of selenium have been found to cause reproductive failure.

Last year, in a broad mountaintop removal study, federal officials found repeated violations of water quality limits for selenium in the water downstream from mining operations. Violations were found in the Upper Mud River, Island Creek, Twentymile Creek, Spruce Fork and Clear Fork watersheds.

Federal officials based their report of violations on the state's current selenium rule, which limits the legal concentration of selenium in water to 5 micrograms per liter. In that study, federal officials said that selenium in streams accumulates in the food chain, increasing the amount to which fish are exposed.

Coal industry lobbyists want the state to abandon its current limit on selenium in water. Instead, they favor a rule to limit selenium in fish tissue to 7.9 parts per million. The joint Legislative Rulemaking-Review Committee has already approved this change.

Last week, coal company lawyer Bob McLusky told members of the West Virginia Coal Association that selenium is clearly found in and around coal reserves.

When rock and dirt are moved to expose coal for mining, he said, selenium is released and ends up in streams.

"It's never been a problem before, because no one has been out there looking for selenium," McLusky said.

The industry's proposed rule change, McLusky said, "would ensure protection of aquatic life, and make sure we are not automatically in violation of water quality standards for selenium in West Virginia." McLusky said that the industry simply wants the state to adopt a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard for selenium.

Libby Chatfield is technical adviser for the state Environmental Quality Board, which writes West Virginia's water quality rules.

Chatfield said that the EPA has actually not completed work on its selenium proposal, although some scientists in the field have reviewed a draft recommendation.

West Virginia's current rule is based on EPA recommendations. It is not clear when, or if, EPA will change its recommendations.

Under the state's current standards, widespread violations exist downstream from mining operations.

As part of the government's broad study of mountaintop removal, EPA scientists found 66 violations of the 5-microgram-per-liter limit in water.

But, if the state adopts the coal industry proposal of 7.9 parts per million in fish, these violations might disappear.

In their review, fish and wildlife biologists found concentrations of up to 6.89 parts per million in fish tissue downstream from mine sites. They found no concentrations in fish above the 7.9 limit the industry favors.

But in its letter to DEP, the Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that a limit of 7.9 parts per million could be too high.

The agency noted that selenium studies have found that concentrations above 4.0 parts per million have caused death of young fish and failure of reproductive systems in adult fish.

In three areas downstream from mining operations, fish and wildlife officials found concentrations above that 4.0 figure, the agency's report said. The selenium levels could also post a risk to birds that eat the fish, or aquatic insects in the stream, Densmore wrote in his letter to DEP. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

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