MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Three environmental groups sued coal operator ICG Eastern in federal court Wednesday over a Webster County surface mine they say has been discharging toxic selenium into streams for years.The Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed the case in U.S. District Court in Elkins over the Knight-Ink No. 1 mine. The complaint alleges violations of state and federal law, including the federal Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.The complaint also claims state regulators have been lax in cracking down on ICG, allowing discharges into Big Beaver Creek, and two tributaries, Oldhe Fork and Board Fork, at levels above those designed to protect aquatic life. The mine is in east-central West Virginia, in a scenic, sparsely populated county that juts into the Monongahela National Forest.ICG Eastern, which produced 2.5 million tons of coal in 2009 according to its website, is a subsidiary of International Coal Group Inc. of Scott Depot. Spokesman Ross Mazza said ICG has not yet reviewed the complaint and could not immediately comment.Selenium is a naturally occurring element that surface mining can release into waterways. Studies have found it's toxic to aquatic life. In humans, high-level exposure can damage the kidneys, liver, and central nervous and circulatory systems."The coal companies' behavior is just the same old story. The companies want us to pay -- through harm to aquatic life and risk to human health -- for their illegal pollution,'' said Jim Sconyers, chairman of the Sierra Club's state chapter. "Sorry, but it's high time they pay to make it stop.''The groups have filed similar lawsuits against subsidiaries of Massey Energy, Arch Coal, Patriot Coal and Western Coal.Last summer, U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers ordered Patriot to spend $45 million to address selenium pollution from two of its mountaintop removal mines.
As in the earlier cases, the environmental groups accuse the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection of failing to enforce selenium limits but do not name the agency as a defendant.In the Knight-Ink case, they accuse the DEP of colluding with the coal company to repeatedly delay stricter limits and compliance schedules. The lawsuit also says DEP failed to enforce its own order that an effective treatment system for selenium be online by October 2008.Water quality lawsuits have become one of the favored tools of groups that oppose large-scale surface mining in Appalachia, particularly the highly efficient and highly destructive form of strip mining known as mountaintop removal.DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said her agency is involved in more than a dozen selenium-discharge lawsuits with mining companies, including ICG Eastern. The DEP is in discussions with ICG about how to proceed, she said."Over the last four years, the state has assessed nearly $20 million in penalties against violators in the coal industry," Cosco said, "and we believe that that would stack up fairly well if compared to other states taking action against a major industry."The lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey to force ICG to immediately comply with all effluent limits, monitoring and reporting requirements, and previous state orders.Complaining the state has proposed only "minuscule'' fines for violations they contend should cost ICG tens of millions, the plaintiffs also demand ICG be fined as much as $37,500 a day for each violation since Jan. 12, 2009, and $32,500 a day for each day before that date.