Following Kentucky's lead, the West Virginia Legislature is considering a bill (HB 2579) that would weaken state water quality standards for selenium, a toxic pollutant often discharged from mountaintop removal mining operations.A note in the bill says, "The purpose of this bill is to protect state waters by creating an implementation plan to establish state specific selenium criteria."That's simply untrue. The new criteria would severely weaken standards, protecting not state waters or the life they support, but the coal industry and its profits.Selenium pollution is extraordinarily expensive to treat. How expensive? Actions Appalachian Mountain Advocates brought against Patriot Coal resulted in $440 million in selenium cleanup liabilities.Always remember this: If the Legislature helps the coal industry successfully evade these costs, the liability will almost certainly end up on the taxpayers.The bill's authors hang the proposed change on the flimsiest of rationales: "The Legislature finds that [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] has been contemplating a revision to the federally recommended criteria for several years but has yet to issue a revised standard."Therefore, the bill declares, the DEP should deal with the resulting "uncertainty" about whether the current standard is applicable by implementing its own standards.But there is no uncertainty. The EPA under President George W. Bush proposed a change in 2004, but withdrew it after a multitude of critics eviscerated the proposal as unsupported by the science. If anything, the science suggests current standards should be more restrictive, not less.There is no current proposal on the record to revise federal criteria for selenium, only persistent rumors. Any change eventually proposed would undergo significant scrutiny.
It's not possible to tell what the final standard would be from the West Virginia bill, but the Kentucky attempt will undoubtedly be instructive. There, regulators wanted to allow greater than 10 times more pollution than the current water-based standard for one-time exposure.The standard for long-time 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.If this isn't about the science, and it isn't about phantom proposals by the EPA, what is it about?The answer is as obvious as it is distressing: West Virginia lawmakers are putting the profit of a declining industry above the best interests of the people and environment of the state. Again.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.
Lawmakers can weaken the standards, but changing the law 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 the state.Citizens of West Virginia shouldn't let that happen without a fight.Radmacher is communications director for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, appalmad.org.