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, Appalachian Mountain Advocates 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. We have 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.

Selenium is a silent killer. 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 Appalachian Mountain Advocates 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. There’s reason to believe that once selenium is exposed by mining, it will remain a perpetual problem. Advances in treatment have brought the expense down, considerably, but it still requires permanent infrastructure.

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 Appalmad, 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.