CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Three environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit accusing a West Virginia surface mine operator of illegally allowing excess selenium to pollute a pair of creeks.The Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed the lawsuit in federal court in Huntington on Tuesday. They claim Maple Coal Co. is violating pollution discharge limits at the Sycamore surface mine, which straddles parts of Kanawha and Fayette counties.A spokesman for Maple's corporate parent, Canadian coal producer Western Coal, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. The mine is a relatively modest operation. Government records show it produced about 240,000 tons of coal in 2009 and employs about 30 people.Water quality lawsuits have become a favored tool of groups opposed to large-scale surface Appalachian surface mining in recent years. Similar actions have been filed against several other companies, most notably St. Louis-based Patriot Coal.
The Maple lawsuit also accuses the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection of failing to enforce selenium limits at the mine. The agency isn't named as a defendant, but the plaintiffs say they're suing becuse DEP hasn't taken stern enough action.A DEP spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday. However, the agency sued Maple in state court over discharges at the mine. The plaintiffs claim that suit is really designed to give Maple more time before it must comply with selenium limits instead of forcing the company to clean up discharges immediately."It's past time that these companies acknowledge the problems being created by their discharges and clean up their act," the Highlands Conservancy's Cindy Rank said in a statement. "It's also past time that the state regulatory agency recognize the severity of the selenium problems, properly enforce permits, and avoid granting permits that will add to our already overwhelming long-term water liabilities at mine sites."Selenium is a naturally occurring element that surface mining can release into waterways. Studies have found it's toxic to aquatic life and, in humans, high-level exposure can damage the kidneys, liver, and central nervous and circulatory systems.The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Maple to stop discharging excess selenium, civil fines for violations in 2010 and lawyers fees.