CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal judge on Tuesday held Patriot Coal in contempt of court and ordered the company to install equipment to clean up selenium pollution at two of its operations in Southern West Virginia.U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers gave Patriot's Apogee Coal subsidiary 2 1/2 years to install treatment systems at its Ruffer Mine in Logan County and at the Hobet 21 complex along the Boone-Lincoln county border.Chambers also ordered Patriot to post a $45 million letter of credit to ensure the treatment systems are installed and said he plans to appoint a special master to oversee the matter.Ruling from the bench during an afternoon hearing in Huntington, Chambers sided with environmental groups who have been pushing for the coal industry to clean up selenium violations across the state's southern coalfields.
"This will be the first time selenium is treated in this state, and it should be a lesson to both the Department of Environmental Protection and the coal industry that it must be treated," said Margaret Janes, senior policy analyst for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "The results of this case clearly show that the cost of mining high-selenium coal seams exceeds the profits."Joe Lovett and Derek Teaney, lawyers from the center, had sued Patriot on behalf of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy over repeated selenium violations at the St. Louis-based company's mines.Officials from Patriot could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday evening.Selenium, a naturally occurring element found in many rocks and soils, is an antioxidant needed in very small amounts for good health. In slightly larger amounts, selenium can be toxic.Selenium impacts the reproductive cycle of many aquatic species, can impair the development and survival of fish, and can damage gills or other organs of aquatic organisms subject to prolonged exposure. In humans it can cause deadly kidney and liver damage, as well as damage to the nervous and circulatory systems.In 2003, a broad federal government study of mountaintop-removal mining found repeated violations of water quality limits for selenium. The following year, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report warned of more selenium problems downstream from major mining operations.Since then, coal lobbyists have tried unsuccessfully to weaken the state's selenium limits, but have persuaded the DEP to repeatedly delay compliance deadlines. The Obama administration's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun to object to those delays, and is considering issuing an even tougher selenium standard.In the hearing, Chambers had combined two cases against Patriot over selenium discharges from its mines in Southern West Virginia. One case concerns continuing selenium violations at the Hobet 21 complex. In June, Chambers ruled against the company regarding Hobet 21, but did not immediately say what Patriot must do about the problem.The other case concerns Patriot's Ruffner Mine. Environmentalists wanted the judge to hold the company in contempt for not meeting a court-approved April deadline to clean up that operation's selenium discharges.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org