Shortsighted on coal discharges; state wrong to rush selenium rule

Kentucky should be figuring out how to make the coal industry clean up after itself, not looking for more ways to let the industry shift its cleanup costs onto the public and taxpayers.

Yet a whole list of business, industry and municipal groups, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and League of Cities, is joining the coal industry to support a loosening of state standards for selenium discharges.

In small concentrations selenium is sold in the vitamin section and is good for human health.

In larger concentrations, such as those discharged by surface mining, selenium causes death and deformity in fish and can harm humans.

Some coal companies in West Virginia have been ordered to spend millions of dollars cleaning up streams killed by their selenium discharges, which is why the industry in both states is seeking weaker standards that will allow it to avoid accountability for selenium pollution.

Kentucky's Cabinet for Energy and Environment is attempting to rush through a new selenium rule without the degree of public involvement required by federal law when states change water quality standards.

The limited involvement of the public in the rule-making process will generate lawsuits that will cost Kentucky taxpayers money.

That alone is a good reason for the legislature's Administrative Regulations Review Subcommittee to reject the standard.

The rushed-up standard has not been put to independent scientific review, even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended such a review because Kentucky would be the first to base selenium enforcement on samples of fish tissue from affected streams.

Opponents of the change say it would allow so much selenium pollution that all the fish would die before they could be tested.

The Chamber says the new standard would protect Kentucky's "business climate" and potentially avoid "more costly water treatment."

We fear the Chamber is taking a dangerously short-sighted view of the costs and benefits.

Enabling further degradation of streams that are the headwaters of Kentucky's water supply can't be good for the state's economic climate or people in the long run. Such disregard for the environment will repel smart people and businesses from moving here.

Just as it has with the costs of smoking, Kentucky's larger business community will eventually recognize that the cost of caring for people sickened and disabled by coal industry pollution is a drag on the state's economy.