Posts Tagged ‘Selenium’

Take Action: Protect Appalachian Streams from Toxic Selenium

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 - posted by eric

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new national recommended water quality criteria for selenium. Because these new standards are weaker and more complex than the current standards, they pose a major threat to the health of streams in coal-impacted communities.

Selenium is a pollutant released from many mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia that is extremely toxic to fish at very low levels. Over time, it builds up in fish and other aquatic organisms leading to reproductive failure, deformities and death.

The EPA’s proposed standards are too weak to be protective of aquatic life. Studies have shown negative effects of selenium at levels half as high as the fish tissue standards proposed by the agency. These standards are even weaker than those proposed by the EPA in 2004, which were withdrawn after public comments from agencies and scientists demonstrated that they would not protect aquatic life.

A table of current and proposed EPA selenium standards. Click to enlarge.

By partially basing the standards on fish tissue sampling, the EPA has created a significant burden for citizens and agencies trying to enforce the limits on selenium pollution. Fish tissue sampling will be more expensive and time consuming, and it will require special permits for collecting fish. This is especially problematic in Appalachia, where selenium standards have primarily been enforced through citizen actions. These standards will be more difficult to enforce, and will just lead to more streams being degraded.

Tell the EPA not to weaken Selenium Standards

Please take a few minutes to email with the subject line “Attention Docket No. EPA-HQ-OW-2004-0019”, and let them know that we need strong water based standards for selenium, that will protect all aquatic life. The comment period has been extended through July 28, 2014.

EPA Proposal for Toxic Coal Pollutant Won’t Protect Clean Water

Thursday, May 15th, 2014 - posted by eric

Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist, 828-262-1500,
Erin Savage, Water Quality Specialist, 828-262-1500,
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft of new national water quality standards for selenium, a toxic pollutant discharged from many mountaintop removal coal mines and coal ash ponds. Even at very low concentrations, selenium is extremely toxic to fish, causing physical deformities and reproductive failure.

EPA is proposing a more complicated system for measuring selenium. Currently, the recommended standard for selenium consists of a four-day average concentration in water of 5 parts per billion (ppb). As proposed, the new rule will primarily rely on testing for the pollutant in fish tissue, a more complex method of monitoring than stream water testing. The complexity of this new standard will make it more difficult and expensive to implement for state agencies, industries, and concerned citizens.

The new standard does include water-based testing, but increases the recommended testing period from four days to 30 days. The new standard can be adjusted for fewer days of testing, if necessary. Under that provision, the new allowable selenium concentration for a four-day time period would be seven times higher than the current standard.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Water Quality Specialist Eric Chance:

“This new selenium standard is a step backwards. The scientific community has been fairly clear for some time that the current standards were too weak, but this newly proposed standard will actually allow more selenium pollution, not less. Headwater streams below mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia, and the people who depend on that water, are going to suffer from this decision.”

“This new rule would make it almost impossible for citizens to exercise their rights under the Clean Water Act to protect waters they care about. Citizens would be required to collect seven times as many water samples as they do now, or they’d have to collect fish to analyze which generally requires a special permit.”

“Fish tissue standards are good for measuring the effects of selenium on fish but they don’t take into account effects on other species like birds, and they are nearly impossible to translate into limits on a Clean Water Act permit for a coal mine that discharges selenium. For these reasons, we are glad to see that EPA has included water-based standards as well, but they aren’t strong enough.”

EPA is collecting public comments on this proposed rule until June 13, 2014. Those wishing to submit comments can email with the subject heading: “Attention Docket No. EPA–HQ–OW–2004–0019.”

Appalachian Voices is an award-winning, environmental non-profit committed to protecting the natural resources of central and southern Appalachia, focusing on reducing coal’s impact on the region and advancing our vision for a cleaner energy future. Founded in 1997, we are headquartered in Boone, N.C. with offices in Charlottesville, Va.; Knoxville, Tn. and Washington, D.C

Patriot Coal CEO: Ending Mountaintop Removal Mining a “Win-Win”

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by meredith

After emerging from bankruptcy, Patriot Coal CEO Bennett Hatfield said in an interview with SNL Energy that the 2012 settlement over selenium pollution that forced the company to begin phasing out mountaintop removal proved to be a “win-win.” Even before the settlement, Hatfield said, Patriot was finding it “increasingly undesirable to deploy mountaintop removal operations anyway” because of regulatory resistance and the likelihood that new permits would be met with litigation from environmental groups.

Solar Power Can Strengthen Economies, Researchers Say

A new report says that while the solar industries in neighboring states have generated thousands of jobs, West Virginia’s policies are holding the state back. Released by the West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies and The Mountain Institute’s Appalachia program, the report found that in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland there are approximately 9,000 jobs associated with solar. West Virginia, however, ranks 51st in solar jobs per capita, at just under 100 jobs. The report focuses on five specific recommendations — including third-party financing, tax credits and other incentives for residential and commercial solar power — to address barriers preventing West Virginia from establishing an economically viable solar industry.

Absentee Corporations Still WV’s Largest Landowners

Land ownership patterns in West Virginia, a state with a reputation for being influenced by large absentee corporations, have remained largely unchanged for the past century, according to a report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the American Friends Service Committee.

The report, titled “Who Owns West Virginia?” finds that not one of the state’s 10 largest private landowners is headquartered in West Virginia, and that large energy and land-holding corporations continue to control much of the resource-rich acres in the state. In five counties in the state’s southern coalfields – Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Mingo and Boone – the top 10 landowners own at least 50 percent of private land. Researchers noted that during the last few decades, the number of major timber management operations on the list of the largest landowners has increased.

Hoping to raise awareness of the role that absentee and local land ownership has played in West Virginia’s economic development over time, researchers recommend policymakers devote resources to counties with the highest concentrations of land ownership and ensure that large landowners are adequately taxed.

To help accomplish this, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy has led a movement to establish the “Future Fund,” a permanent mineral trust fund to help asset-poor communities grow using revenue from coal and natural gas severance taxes.

Fighting for Clean Water in Virginia: Standing up to Coal Industry Bullies

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 - posted by eric
Kelly Branch

Kelly Branch and several other tributaries of Callahan Creek, near the town of Appalachia Virginia are the subject of a new lawsuit for selenium pollution. (Photo: SAMS)

Today, Appalachian Voices along with our allies in Virginia filed a lawsuit against Penn Virginia for water polluted by selenium coming from abandoned mines on their land. This lawsuit is one in a series of suits aimed at cleaning up selenium pollution in Callahan Creek.

Callahan Creek flows south through a series of small communities and into the town of Appalachia in Wise County, Va. Along the way it passes a number of coal mines including the Kelly Branch Mine and the Stonega Slurry Impoundment. Last year, the same group of allies initiating this lawsuit filed legal actions for selenium pollution against the operators of both of those facilities. The operator of the Kelly Branch Mine, A&G Coal, submitted a report in response showing that much of the pollution in streams surrounding that mine was coming from old mines on Penn Virginia-owned property. That report is the primary basis of the lawsuit filed today.

Water monitoring by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) has shown that there are major selenium problems in Callahan Creek and its tributaries including Kelly Branch. Selenium is extremely toxic to fish at very low levels. It causes reproductive failure, deformities and death.

This two headed trout was deformed by selenium pollution.

Pennsylvania-based Penn Virginia owns nearly one-quarter of the land in Wise County and is the county’s largest landholder. Essentially, landholding companies like Penn Virginia operate by leasing their land to mining, natural gas and timber companies and collecting royalties from those companies. Once mines are abandoned, many continue to pollute nearby streams. Currently in Virginia, these types of pollution discharges are not regulated, so there is no one treating or monitoring them. These legacy mining discharges are a major source of pollution in Southwest Virginia and throughout Appalachia, but no one wants to claim responsibility for them. Through this lawsuit we hope to force large landholding companies like Penn Virginia to take responsibility for the pollution coming from the lands they own.

As required by the Clean Water Act, before filing this lawsuit we filed a Notice of Intent to Sue letter in late 2013. The purpose of such letters is to give polluters and state agencies a chance to address the pollution problems before a lawsuit is filed. Rather than trying to fix their pollution problems, Penn Virginia instead chose to use bully tactics and threaten members of SAMS. The company sent cease and desist letters to several members of SAMS banning them from entering Penn Virginia land that includes a family cemetery and a church that several of them attend.

The Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards are represented in this matter by Joe Lovett and Isak Howell of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

>> Find out more from our press release here
>> Read the legal filing here

Penn Virginia Faces Legal Challenge for Toxic Water Pollution

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 - posted by eric

Community Groups Protest Coal Mining Pollution and “Bully Tactics”

Eric Chance, Appalachian Voices,, 828-262-1500
Oliver Bernstein, Sierra Club,, 512-289-8618
Glen Besa, Virginia Sierra Club,, 804 225-9113
Matt Hepler, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards,, 540 871-1564

Roanoke, Va. – Today, a coalition of citizen and environmental groups filed a legal action with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia claiming that Penn Virginia Operating Company is violating Clean Water Act protections on property that it owns that includes former coal mining sites near the town of Appalachia in Wise County, Virginia. The groups have found through their own research including open records requests that Penn Virginia is violating Clean Water Act protections by dumping toxic selenium into streams at seven locations on its property.

Penn Virginia responded to the initial notice informing the company of the coalition’s intent to sue by serving members of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) with cease and desist orders. These orders bar SAMS members from entering any Penn Virginia owned land, including land that contains members’ family cemeteries.

“This is a bully tactic and a serious insult to me and my family,” said Sam Broach, President of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Penn Virginia is using its corporate power to deny me the basic right to visit my family graveyard.”

“For too long the coal industry – including the out of state corporations that own the land and coal – has been able to get away with violating pollution standards,” said Glen Besa, Virginia Director of the Sierra Club. “This lawsuit is a message to Penn Virginia that they must obey the pollution laws or citizens will take action.”

Penn Virginia Operating Company, based out of Radnor, Pennsylvania, owns land in six states that it leases to third parties, including coal mining interests. Penn Virginia is a subsidiary of Penn Virginia Resource Partners, which is the largest single landowner in Wise County.

“Far too often, coal impacted communities are left with toxic water and depressed economies while large out of state companies make millions,” said Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist for Appalachian Voices. “Penn Virginia’s failure to address these longstanding sources of pollution shows a disregard for the health of the people, land and water of Appalachia.”

Pollution from coal mines is not limited to active surface mines. Because the ultimate source of the pollution comes from materials exposed through mining that remain on site, abandoned, and even reclaimed, mined sites continue to pollute. In many cases the owners of former mine sites do not have Clean Water Act discharge permits for these sites. Typically, these owners are large land holding companies who also own active mountaintop removal coal mining sites. Federal and state regulators typically do not monitor the discharges from these former mine sites.

The Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards are represented in this matter by Joe Lovett and Isak Howell of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.


Appalachian Voices and Partners Challenge Kentucky’s Weakening of Water Pollution Standards for Selenium

Friday, December 13th, 2013 - posted by eric

This two headed trout was deformed by selenium pollution. Today, we have taken action to keep EPA and Kentucky from allowing pollution like this to get worse.

Earlier today Appalachian Voices and a number of partner organizations sued the EPA over their approval of Kentucky’s new, weaker standard for selenium pollution.

Selenium is extremely toxic to fish, and causes deformities and reproductive failure at extremely low levels. The pollutant is commonly discharged from coal mines and coal ash ponds, but currently Kentucky does not regulate its discharge from these facilities.

These new standards were proposed at the behest of coal industry groups, likely motivated by citizen groups’ success at requiring companies in other states to clean up their selenium pollution. We have also seen the state governments of Virginia and West Virginia take steps towards making similar rollbacks to their own standards, making the EPA’s approval of Kentucky’s weakened standards even more alarming.

Groups Challenge EPA Decision to Gut Clean Water Protections in Kentucky

Friday, December 13th, 2013 - posted by eric

New Guidelines for Coal Mining Pollutant Fail to Protect Waterways and Wildlife

Eric Chance, Appalachian Voices 828-262-1500
Sean Sarah, Sierra Club 330 338-3740
Doug Doerrfeld, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth 606-784-9226|
Judy Petersen, Kentucky Waterways Alliance 502 589-8008

Louisville, KY – Today, community and environmental groups took action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a recent decision allowing Kentucky to weaken its water quality protections for selenium, a pollutant common to mountaintop removal coal mines. This new standard, which tests selenium levels in fish tissue instead of in rivers and streams where mine wastewater is discharged, is strikingly similar to one the Bush Administration rejected as too weak to protect sensitive aquatic species. The lawsuit alleges that the standard fails to meet protections in the Clean Water Act.

“There’s simply no scientific or legal justification for this EPA to approve a standard worse than one rejected by the Bush administration,” said Alice Howell, Chair of the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club. “In doing so, EPA has made a bad situation much worse. The new selenium standard endangers the health of Kentucky’s already compromised waterways while opening the door for other states to do the same.”

In mid-November, the EPA allowed Kentucky to change the way it monitors selenium pollution from surface mines, a change suggested by coal industry lobbyists, who appear to be motivated by citizen groups’ successful enforcement of the existing protections elsewhere in the region.

Selenium pollution is known to accumulate in fish and aquatic wildlife over time, causing deformities and reproductive failures. When a coal company destroys a mountain to get at the coal underneath, much of what’s left is dumped into nearby valleys and streams. This pollutes the local waterways with selenium, among other substances that pose a threat to fish and humans. Valley fills are a major source of the selenium pollution found at mountaintop removal mines.

“We repeatedly urged both EPA and the Commonwealth to have the US Geological Survey and US Fish and Wildlife Service look at the science behind the new standard. Both federal agencies were instrumental in the rejection of the prior Bush administration proposals. Ignoring our pleas, they moved to finalize the new criteria. We felt we had no other option to protect our waterways than to go forward with our legal challenge,” Judy Petersen, executive director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance stated.

In their lawsuit, the groups argue that the EPA decision was arbitrary and capricious. First, EPA violated the Clean Water Act by allowing Kentucky to institute a scientifically indefensible standard that fails to protect sensitive wildlife. Second, both citizens and EPA raised concerns about the difficulty of implementing a fish tissue based standard, yet EPA approved this standard based on a vague letter from Kentucky officials about how the new standard would be enforced. Kentucky’s assurances are not part of Kentucky state law and are thus unenforceable; therefore, EPA is not entitled to rely upon these assurances in approving the new standard.

“This new fish tissue based standard is just a novel way of letting polluters off the hook for poisoning our fish and waterways,” said Eric Chance, water quality specialist for Appalachian Voices. “The main point of this standard is to protect fish, but testing fish tissue can never tell you how many fish the selenium pollution already killed. A fish tissue based standard creates many more problems than just the ones mentioned in the letter EPA relied on to make this decision; I don’t think EPA or Kentucky have seriously thought through how this rule would work in the real world.”

Doug Doerrfeld of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth added, “KFTC and our allies have worked for years to make EPA fully aware of the systemic failures of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet to protect our commonwealth’s people, waters and environment. In light of this history it is disgraceful that EPA would approve a weakened selenium standard that will not only leave aquatic life at risk but will make citizen enforcement all but impossible.”

This action was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. Sierra Club, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices, and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance are represented in this case by Ben Luckett and Joe Lovett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.


Progress and Setbacks for Appalachia’s Environment

Monday, December 9th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

Asheville City Council Approves Clean Energy Resolution

In October, the city council of Asheville, N.C., unanimously approved a resolution to phase out the city’s use of coal-fired electricity and increase power generated from cleaner sources and saved through energy efficiency. Led by local citizen groups including the Western North Carolina Alliance and the Asheville Beyond Coal campaign, the statement targets Duke Energy and the utility’s Asheville Steam Station.

The coal plant is western North Carolina’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and has become a poster child for the poor regulation of coal ash. In the past year, the Asheville plant has been the target of protests and a lawsuit filed by the state focused on coal ash pollution of the French Broad River. The resolution calls on Duke Energy to work with city government to find ways to meet Asheville’s carbon reduction goals but does not explicitly ask Duke to close the plant.

EPA Approves Weakened Kentucky Selenium Standards

By Brian Sewell

On Nov. 15, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved a controversial Kentucky Division of Water proposal to weaken water quality standards for selenium, a pollutant prevalent in coal mining waste that threatens aquatic life and stream health. Environmental groups say the new standards will not adequately protect aquatic life, and will make it harder to test for and enforce the limits near mountaintop removal coal mining sites throughout eastern Kentucky.

Although the EPA did not approve of all the changes proposed by the Kentucky DOW, the agency accepted raising limits and changing the testing method for the state’s chronic standard. The level of selenium in the water table that previously triggered enforcement will now require fish tissue sampling. But even the new fish tissue standard allows for more of the toxin than a standard proposed by the EPA in 2004 that was rejected after a group of the nation’s leading selenium scientists argued it was too weak.

In recent years, selenium has become a liability for coal companies, especially those that operate mountaintop removal mines in Central Appalachia. Due to the threat of lawsuits and the substantial clean-up costs, the coal industry has pressured regulators to weaken selenium standards. The EPA’s decision is likely to encourage other states to weaken their own limits on selenium — especially West Virginia and Virginia, where efforts are currently underway.

Report Documents Concerns Over Water Use and Fracking Waste in W.Va.

By Brian Sewell

As West Virginia undergoes a natural gas boom, more information is surfacing regarding the amount of water used in the drilling process and the monitoring of waste disposal. According to a report sent to state lawmakers by Morgantown-based consulting firm Downstream Strategies, West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale wells leave huge quantities of fracking fluid underground, and the industry’s water use and waste production is very poorly monitored.

The Downstream Strategies report found that of the approximately 5 million gallons of fluid injected per fractured well in West Virginia, only 8 percent returns to the surface. The remaining 92 percent stays underground, completely removed from the water cycle. Also, according to the report, since more than 80 percent of the water used is taken directly from nearby rivers and streams, improper timing of water withdrawals can lead to severe impacts on small streams and aquatic life.

State regulations have been slow to keep up with the fracking boom in West Virginia. After drilling occurs, the fate of 62 percent of the waste produced is currently unknown.

The Downstream Strategies authors claim that improvements in reporting, data collection and enforcement are needed to protect the environment from the growing volume of fracking waste. Still, research indicates that the reporting laws already in place are largely unenforced.

Effects of Selenium Poisoning: Deformed and Dying Fish at Sutton Lake

Thursday, December 5th, 2013 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Bluegill from Lake Sutton with a deformed spine (top) compared to a normal bluegill (bottom). Photo courtesy SELC

Bluegill from Lake Sutton with a deformed spine (top) compared to a normal bluegill (bottom). Photo courtesy SELC

Coal ash, the toxic waste produced by coal-fired power plants continues to plague communities across the country. A new study, conducted by Dr. Dennis Lemly, research associate professor of Biology at Wake Forest University and a leading expert on selenium poisoning, found that selenium from coal ash discharges into Sutton Lake near Wilmington, N.C., is killing more than 900,000 fish each year and causing deformities in thousands more. (more…)

Saying “No!” to Toxins in Our Water

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013 - posted by tom


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made a troubling decision that bodes ill for Kentuckians — and maybe for other citizens in Appalachia as well. The agency is letting Kentucky change how it measures toxic selenium pollution from mountaintop removal coal mines, using data from fish tissue rather than straightforward water quality samples from streams.

The new method is so complicated and fraught with pitfalls as to be virtually unenforceable. And it effectively shuts out concerned citizens from exercising their right under federal law to take legal action to defend their community’s watershed. The EPA’s action could also open the door to weakening of the standard in other states like Virginia and West Virginia.

Appalachian Voices works with citizens throughout the region to expose water pollution from mountaintop removal mining, and we’ve been advocating for strong state standards to control this dangerous pollutant. We are pushing back on the EPA’s decision on Kentucky, and we’re ready to hit the ground to fight for responsible, enforceable standards in other states.

And now we have fortifications for that work! It is my pleasure to introduce three new staff members to the Appalachian Voices team: Amy Adams, Ann League and Kara Dodson. Each brings her own unique spirit, professionalism, talent and strong sense of justice to our mission.

Amy, who left the beleaguered N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources this fall to join our staff, brings a wealth of experience and perspective to head our North Carolina campaign. Ann, whose home in Tennessee was threatened by the massive Zeb Mountain coal mine, has been deeply engaged in the campaign to end mountaintop removal and will head up our work in that state. And Kara, a dedicated and passionate community organizer, has hit the ground running as our first-ever Field Coordinator. [ Read more about these three fantastic additions ]

The influx of their combined energy and enthusiasm has already brought a tremendous boost to the organization, with much more to come!