Coal polluters plan to avoid cleanup

Selenium rules change bad for taxpayers

March 25, 2013 

Dan Radmacher is communications director for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, in Lewisburg, W.Va.

  • At issue: Feb. 20 editorial, "Water quality rules scrutinized; Cabinet tried to avoid public review"

It is no coincidence that Kentucky and West Virginia are working to weaken their water quality standards for selenium, a toxic pollutant often discharged from mountaintop-removal mining operations.

As the recent Herald-Leader editorial pointed out, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet tried to force through rules greatly weakening the state's pollution standards with as little public input as possible. Only public outcry to the legislature resulted in a more open process, but the Cabinet remains intent on weakening the standards.

In West Virginia, a bill has been introduced to do the same. Taxpayers in both states should be outraged.

Selenium pollution is extraordinarily expensive to treat. How expensive? Actions that Appalachian Mountain Advocates brought against Patriot Coal resulted in $440 million in selenium cleanup liabilities.

Always remember this: If public officials and regulators help the coal industry successfully evade these costs, the liability will almost certainly end up on citizens.

The Patriot example has made clear to coal companies that selenium can be toxic to their bottom lines. The rational approach would be to avoid mining selenium-laden seams and to proactively work with the state to clean up existing pollution.

But why do that when compliant legislators and regulators are more than willing to weaken the standards, turning a blind eye to the damage caused by the pollution?

The Cabinet's proposal would allow greater than 10 times more pollution than the current water-based standard for one-time exposure. The standard for longtime exposure would be shifted from water-based to exposure in fish tissue — even though selenium pollution can decimate aquatic life, making it very difficult to even find fish to test.

There is no scientific foundation for this change. The science, in fact, supports a more stringent standard. Only the corrupting influence of a declining industry could lead officials who are supposed to protect the environment and people of Kentucky and West Virginia to protect profits instead.

Weakening selenium standards will make it harder to hold coal companies accountable for the damage they cause. It will keep the massive destruction of mountaintop-removal mining affordable — for the coal industry, if not the taxpayers.

Such actions will make it more difficult to attract industries that, unlike Appalachian coal, aren't on a clear glide path to irrelevancy.

Weakening the standards won't change reality. Selenium pollution will continue to harm aquatic life and destroy the biological integrity of streams. Eventually, the pollution will have to be treated, and the enormous cost will fall on the taxpayers of both states.


At issue: Feb. 20 editorial, "Water quality rules scrutinized; Cabinet tried to avoid public review"

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