« Urban Girls Explore, Enjoy, and Protect | Main | Connecting the 9 in New Orleans »

April 16, 2014

Selenium: Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining's Toxic Legacy

Mountaintop-removal-miningMountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. Photo by Vivian Stockman, courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

By Peter Morgan, Staff Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

Surface coal mines in Appalachia have a problem. For years, they've been getting away with blowing up mountains and dumping the waste in streams. That mining waste releases toxic pollutants -- such as selenium -- into the streams. Now the companies are being held accountable for their pollution, including at older mines that are no longer active but still discharge selenium.

MTR-pollutionStream polluted with runoff from a mountaintop removal mining site. Photo by Matt Wasson, courtesy of iLoveMountains.org

Across Appalachia, coal companies have tried to cut costs and access more coal by using a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal (sometimes referred to as MTR). These mines use high explosives to blow up the rock and other materials that overlay coal seams in the mountains and ridgelines of Appalachia. The rocks, which were under pressure in their original setting, expand when the mountain is cracked open. This means that there's even more material left after the blasting. The mining companies dispose of this mining waste by dumping it directly into the neighboring streams and valleys. Approximately 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried with coal mining waste.

MTR-valley-fillA valley fill in southwestern Virginia.

That's where the problem starts: All of that newly exposed and cracked-open rock is now in constant contact with the water in the streams. Over time, pollutants start to leach out of the rock and into the streams. These waste dumps, called valley fills, are left in place even after the mining's done. Some of the pollutants that leach out of the valley fills -- like selenium -- stick around in the environment.

Deformed-fishSelenium is a metalloid that bioaccumulates in the tissue of organisms that live in the streams. Even small amounts of selenium in the water can increase exponentially in fish and other wildlife further up the food chain. Fish found in streams or other water bodies that are high in selenium can suffer birth defects like crooked spines and damaged gills, or may not be able to reproduce. (Photo at left by Dr. A. Dennis Lemly.) Other predators like birds and salamanders can also be affected.

These toxic properties of selenium have led the EPA to set recommended water quality criteria for the pollutant. State standards based on these criteria impose limits of 5µg/l (micrograms per liter) for chronic exposure and 20µg/l for acute exposure. The discharges from many mines across Appalachia regularly exceed these limits, endangering aquatic communities. As a result of advocacy by the Sierra Club and other citizen groups, state regulators began incorporating limits on selenium in Clean Water Act discharge permits for coal mines. Despite these permit conditions, many mines have been unable to keep their discharges below the limits. Because state regulators turned a blind eye to these violations, the Sierra Club and its allies began suing mines to enforce the limits and secure court orders requiring the mines to treat their discharges.

Unfortunately for the mines, selenium is very difficult to remove from the mine discharges. The high volume of water that comes out of the valley fills requires the construction of facilities capable of storing the water long enough for it to be treated. It can cost millions of dollars to treat selenium pollution at just one discharge point. Many mines have multiple discharge points. The cost of treatment required under court orders and settlements from Sierra Club's selenium enforcement litigation has even led one major mine operator to commit to permanently stop mountaintop removal mining.

Because valley fills remain in place even after all mining is complete, selenium treatment liability is a problem not only for active coal mines, but also for the owners of so-called "reclaimed" mines. The Sierra Club and its allies have now begun filing lawsuits seeking to compel corporate landowners -- which profited from leasing their land for mountaintop removal mining -- to stop their unpermitted discharges from these former mine sites. These lawsuits underscore the damaging long-term legacy of coal mining, and make clear that mining companies should avoid using methods that poison streams and endanger the environment.

MTR-valley-fill-in-KYMTR valley fill behind home in Martin County, Kentucky. Photo by Flashdark, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Not surprisingly, mining companies are desperate to avoid liability for their selenium discharges. Rather than take responsibility and treat their discharges, the companies are turning to their allies in state legislatures and regulatory agencies. Kentucky has already attempted to revise its selenium standards to make them effectively unenforceable. Instead of using the EPA's recommended standard, which is based on the easily measurable concentration of selenium in the water column, Kentucky has adopted a standard based on concentrations in fish tissue. That standard allows damage to other species and ecosystems, and will be almost impossible to enforce. Other states appear eager to follow Kentucky's lead. Although the EPA approved Kentucky's revised standard, the Sierra Club and its allies have filed a lawsuit challenging that approval.

Selenium enforcement is just one of the ways that the Club's Environmental Law Program works to hold mining companies accountable for the true costs of their destructive and dangerous practices. While political leaders and regulators refuse to take action to stop mountaintop removal, citizens continue to push back against this destructive and harmful practice. In all its litigation, the Sierra Club works very closely with mountain residents who live in the communities affected by the mining, and with local groups these residents have formed to oppose mountaintop removal. The Club also works hand-in-hand with the West Virginia-based public-interest law firm Appalachian Mountain Advocates, as well as various other local, regional, and national organizations.

Take action to protect Appalachia's water from mountaintop removal mining pollution.

User comments or postings reflect the opinions of the responsible contributor only, and do not reflect the viewpoint of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of any posting. The Sierra Club accepts no obligation to review every posting, but reserves the right (but not the obligation) to delete postings that may be considered offensive, illegal or inappropriate.

Up to Top

Find us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter RSS Feed

Sierra Club Main | Contact Us | Terms and Conditions of Use | Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights | Website Help

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2013 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.