EPA decision on toxic mining waste leaves Kentuckians, other Appalachians at risk

Contact: Erin Savage, Water Quality Specialist, 828-262-1500, erin@appvoices.org
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

Washington DC – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today approved Kentucky’s changes to how the state measures selenium, a toxic pollutant discharged from many mountaintop removal coal mines. Even at very low concentrations, selenium is extremely toxic to fish, causing physical deformities and reproductive failure.

Kentucky had proposed, and today EPA approved, a more complicated system for detecting selenium. The new rule will require testing for the pollutant in fish tissue rather than more straightforward tests that directly sample the concentration in water.

The decision bodes ill for Virginia and West Virginia, whose regulators are poised to begin their own review of how to monitor and regulate selenium in those states.

Kentucky has a history of major problems with enforcement of the Clean Water Act with regards to coal mining. Appalachian Voices, in 2010, exposed thousands of Clean Water Act violations by major coal companies in Kentucky and the failure of state regulators to take enforcement action. Subsequent legal action by Appalachian Voices and a coalition of other groups ultimately led to the largest Clean Water Act fine ever levied in Kentucky against the coal industry.

Appalachian Voices issued the following statement from Erin Savage, Water Quality Specialist on today’s EPA decision:

“The EPA has acted in direct contradiction to its mission by allowing Kentucky to weaken environmental protection for the streams and rivers that Kentuckians use every day for drinking water, fishing, swimming and many other uses.

“Kentucky has proven it can’t, or won’t, sufficiently enforce relatively simple environmental rules. While this new selenium standard may be scientifically defensible, according to the EPA, it is so complicated that it will be difficult to implement and virtually unenforceable. It is unlikely the state has the ability, or the intent, to keep selenium pollution out of the water.

“This sends a signal to other states like Virginia and West Virginia that they, too, can weaken environmental protection for the streams and rivers that their citizens use every day for drinking water, fishing, swimming and many other uses.

“The complex new rule will also make it extremely difficult for citizens to exercise their rights under the Clean Water Act to protect waters they care about.”

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.