What is selenium, and why should you care?

There’s little doubt when a stream has problems with acid mine drainage. The orange water is a dead giveaway. Dead fish floating in the stream is another sign of a problem.

Over the past several years, the Center has been doing pioneering work on a different pollution issue that poses similarly potent and long-lasting ecological risks but in a much less visible manner. The Center has brought?many cases dealing with mining and selenium. Selenium is extremely toxic to aquatic life, but its impacts are far less obvious than acid mine drainage, making the problem easier to ignore.

As the Center’s Senior Policy Analyst Margaret Janes said, selenium is a silent killer. “The most sensitive end-point is reproduction,” she said. Adult fish that have been exposed to selenium may show no outward sign, but their offspring will suffer gross deformities that are most often fatal.

The other difficulty in understanding the impact of selenium is the incredibly small amounts that can lead to catastrophic impacts. Selenium is bioaccumulative. The damage to aquatic and avian life is not caused by exposure to selenium-tainted water itself but to plant life, invertebrate insects and other parts of the food chain that absorb and collect the toxin.

That means that selenium can cause catastrophic ecological effects even when only a few parts per billion make it into the water, and those effects can be felt far downstream. Selenium runoff from Hobet 21, for example, is creating huge impacts in the Mud River Reservoir, miles away.

“The Mud River ecosystem is on the brink of a major toxic event,” wrote?U.S. Forest Service biologist A. Dennis Lemly in a 2008?report filed in a lawsuit brought by the Center to force Patriot Coal to reduce selenium runoff from Hobet.

In a 2004 report, Lemly stressed the importance of preventing selenium contamination rather than trying to clean it up afterwards. As Janes said, selenium is extremely expensive to treat, and there’s reason to believe that once selenium is exposed by mining, it will remain a perpetual, expensive problem.

“Eventually, companies will try to get rid of the liability,” she said. That liability is huge, and if coal companies are successful in getting out from under it, the cost will inevitably fall to the state, and the state’s taxpayers.

To appreciate the magnitude of the costs involved, consider a single judgement won by the Center against Patriot Coal requiring it to install selenium treatment facilities at three outfalls. Treating just those three outfalls will cost $45 million. There are more than a hundred outfalls like that across the state. The Center is suing in multiple cases to make sure that coal companies cannot evade these staggering costs.

The best way to avoid selenium contamination is to avoid mining in areas where the coal and ground above it contain high amounts of the toxin. That can be done by testing core samples, and some sampling is currently required in West Virginia, but the minimum requirement is completely inadequate to get an accurate picture of the entire mine operation, and it might make more sense to have the testing independently verified since by coal companies stand to lose access to significant coal reserves if the numbers come back unfavorably.

Of course, if selenium regulations are strictly enforced, it will be in the coal companies’ interest to have an accurate assessment of the potential for selenium issues before they arise.

It took lawsuits to force the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to recognize the need for selenium limits, and it took more legal action to bring meaningful enforcement of those actions.

These suits, like much of what we do at the Center, are designed to ensure that the costs of mining – including treating the pollution that too often results – are born by those who are profiting, not by the taxpayers of Appalachia.

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