Front Porch Blog

Science vs. Mining

Fish deformed by selenium pollution

It’s no surprise to folks in coal-impacted communities that surface mining is bad for water quality. Orange streams, devoid of life, litter the landscape. But it would seem to most that this is contrary to many environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Unfortunately these laws are filled with loopholes, and the agencies tasked with enforcing them are usually underfunded and understaffed.

There have been numerous studies over the years showing surface mining’s detrimental effects on the health of nearby people and streams. There are two recent notable studies from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) alone. The first was aimed at linking air pollution from mountaintop removal mines to the health problems of nearby residents. Unfortunately, this study will not be completed because its funding has been cut. Earlier this month USGS was able to complete and publish a report that showed streams below mountaintop removal mines have two-thirds fewer fish than those in unpolluted streams. The study also found that selenium pollution is linked to declines in fish populations.

Appalachian Voices has been working to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and industry from opening new loopholes in our environmental laws that would make it easier to poison streams. Along with a number of our supporters and partner organizations, we recently submitted comments to the EPA on their newly proposed standards for selenium.

Selenium is a mineral commonly discharged from coal mines that is extremely toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. It is also very expensive to remove from water so there have been a number of efforts by the coal industry to get agencies to make the standards more lax. This newly proposed EPA standard will make citizen enforcement harder, and will make it easier for companies to get away with discharging toxic levels of selenium.

The new standards are slightly weaker than the selenium standards EPA tried, but failed, to adopt in 2004. A large number of scientists and even other federal agencies came out in opposition to those standards because they were too weak. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, told the EPA that “Based on a large body of scientific evidence, the Service believes these criterion values will not protect federally listed fish and wildlife species. Furthermore, the service believes these values are not even sufficient to protect the aquatic life for which the criteria were developed.”

>> See our comments here and here
>> Look through all the comments here

An expert kayaker with a serious passion for protecting our waterways, Eric served as our Water Quality Specialist for the Appalachian Water Watch team from 2010 to 2015.


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