Patriot agrees to the largest selenium settlement yet

Written by: Dan Radmacher
January 19, 2012

There is probably no better example of the strategy that drives our work here at Appalachian Mountain Advocates than the settlement reached with Patriot Coal to clean up selenium pollution at three major mining complexes in West Virginia.

If approved by the federal government, the settlement would require Patriot to clean up pollution at dozens of discharges at three mining complexes: Hobet 21 along the Boone-Lincoln county line, Samples in Kanawha County, and Ruffner in Logan County.

Considering that Patriot’s cost to clean up just four outfalls will cost at least $95 million according to the company’s public estimates, it’s reasonable to assume that the cost of treating the 43 outfalls covered under this settlement will reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

If not for this settlement, that cost would have eventually been borne by the taxpayers of West Virginia. The main reason that coal is considered a cheap form of power is that so many of its costs are not paid by mining companies or the electric utilities that burn it. Instead, those costs are externalized, shoved onto an unsuspecting public in the form of pollution, public health and safety issues, vast ecological damage, erosion of local economies and other hard-to-calculate costs.

With this settlement, Patriot Coal took responsibility for some of those costs. Selenium is a bioaccumulating toxin that can severely disrupt aquatic life in streams far from the mines that generate it. Because it accumulates in the food chain, even tiny amounts can cause significant ecologic damage. (Read more about selenium here.)

It is very expensive to clean up, and once selenium is exposed through mining activity, treatment is likely to be required in perpetuity.

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. This is why it’s significant that one part of the settlement includes a promise from Patriot to drop plans for future surface mining at its Jupiter-Callisto Mine in Boone County.

This is the latest in a series of cases in which Appalachian Mountain Advocates has won settlements to require coal companies to clean up selenium pollution. In addition, these and other settlements have resulted in donations of more than $14 million to the West Virginia Land Trust and  West Virginia College of Law’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Clinic for projects that will preserve land near rivers and streams.

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