Herald-Leader Editorial

Water-quality rules scrutinized; Cabinet tried to avoid public review

Cabinet tried to avoid public review

February 20, 2013 

If there's one thing we can count on from the Beshear administration, it's a willingness to sacrifice Kentucky's water to the coal industry.

Most recently, the Cabinet for Energy and Environment tried to slip through, with minimum public scrutiny, a weakening of water-quality standards for selenium.

Selenium is a trace mineral that's good for health in small amounts, but toxic in large concentrations.

Surface mines discharge selenium, which builds up in fish and causes deformities and reproductive failure, a disturbance that ripples through the food chain.

When state agencies change the rules, state law guarantees due process. After a legislative committee heard convincing complaints about both the proposal's substance and the process that produced it, the cabinet had no choice but to allow additional time for public review and comment.

The cabinet, which is in the process of reviewing selenium and other water-quality standards as required by federal law every three years, says the new standard would replace one that's "not scientifically sound or defensible."

Instead of testing water samples, the Division of Water would examine the tissue, eggs and ovaries of fish for selenium pollution.

Critics of the new standard, including some who live near streams polluted by surface mining, say there won't be any fish to test in streams with high selenium concentrations.

As early as 2007, the state Division of Water had detected dangerous levels of selenium in water and fish near coal mines in Eastern Kentucky, but refused to release the findings despite Open Records requests from environmental groups.

Coal companies in West Virginia have been ordered by courts to spend millions of dollars controlling selenium pollution.

And in Virginia, a coalition of environmental groups last year sued A&G Coal in an effort to stop what they say are illegal selenium releases near the company's Kelly Branch mine near the Kentucky border.

A&G is owned by West Virginian James C. Justice II, who with his family contributed $271,600 toward Gov. Steve Beshear's re-election and inauguration.

The public depends on the experts employed by state agencies to analyze complex science and make objective recommendations for protecting water, air, land and human health.

The cabinet has scheduled two public meetings and extended the comment period on the selenium rule until next month.

But it will take more than perfunctory gestures to dispel the suspicion that this rule change is about protecting coal companies from lawsuits.

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