[From the diaries by susanhu] Almost a year ago, the EPA started to float proposed changes in how they rate pollution from the element Selenium. It looked like a small thing. It was based on a report by a respected environmental scientist, and the idea behind it even had the backing of several environmental groups. So it was a good thing, right?

Wrong. It was yet another ploy by the Bush administration to ease restrictions on the most horrific practice in mining: mountaintop removal. As this regulation nears implementation, greedy hands rub together in anticipation of ruining the landscape of Appalachia for all time to come.
In previous diaries over at dkos, I proposed two major steps that coal industry could take to be good corporate citizens: they should stand four square behind the clean air act and oppose exemptions given to older power plants, and they should immediately agree to stop mountaintop removal.  But the Bush administration is doing all they can to make sure neither of these things happen.  First, they are promoting the godawful “Clear Skies” Act (a part of the larger “name everything the opposite of what it does” act), which will allow old, pre-law plants to crank out more pollution than ever.  Now, with this new selenium standard, they will eliminate one of the few roadblocks that keeps companies from leveling half of West Virginia.

Previously, they had evaluated selenium pollution based on the parts per million of selenium in the water.  Under the new rules, they would instead look at how selenium was moving into biological systems.  Specifically, how the element is taken up in the bodies of fish.  It’s not an intrinsically bad idea.  After all, fish are one step in the food chain that takes selenium out of streams and into the surrounding environment.

Too much selenium can lead to birth defects, deformities, and death for fish, reptiles, birds and mammals (including people).  This stuff is definitely worth watching, and watching how it’s taken up by fish may well be a better way of doing it than measuring the amount in the water.

What matters is how much selenium the EPA is allowing in the fish.  Under the new regulations, the maximum allowable amount would be around 8 parts per million.  According to Geoffrey Grubbs, the EPA’s director of water science and technology, these standards would protect 80% of the fish population against deformity.  

Think about that for a second.

The EPA is willing to put forward a standard that, by their own admission, could lead to deformity or defects in one fish out of five.  Scary enough for you?  It gets worse.  The folks over at US Fish and Game — the people who did the study that the EPA is supposedly using as the basis for their new standards — say that the 8 parts per million level wouldn’t protect 80% of the fish.  In fact, that’s the level at which fully 50% of the fish die.  And not just the fish, but everything that feeds on the fish.

Joseph Skorupa, a researcher with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says studies show birds lose 10 percent of their offspring after eating food containing 4 parts per million selenium.

“At 8 parts per million, we are talking about a situation where more than 50 percent of the eggs would fail to hatch,” said Skorupa, who has investigated selenium poisonings for more than two decades.

Skorupa initially assumed that the EPA misunderstood the results of the study.  In fact, he sent notes to the agency trying to correct the errors the EPA made in setting the new standards.  But Grubbs and the folks at the EPA ignored these notes.  Based on nothing but their own bald-faced lies, they continue to declare the 8 ppm level “safe” in the face of every scientific study.

So how does all this relate to mining by mountaintop removal?  Coal, like all material made from an organic source, contains a trace amount of selenium.  Living things actually require a tiny amount of the element just to survive, and in coal that element gets somewhat concentrated.  Coal also often acts as an aquifer.  Water travels through pores and fractures in the stone, permeating the coal with metallic salts, including the iron pyrite that leads to acid rain, and salts of more exotic materials like selenium.  Other material above the coal also contains traces of selenium, and other low-permeability aquifers can also concentrate this element.

In mountaintop removal, all the material above the coal  gets dumped into surrounding streams.  Along with all that rock, goes the selenium.  It leeches out of the waste into the water, and from there it’s on its way to the fishes.

Under current law, most every mountaintop removal operation is in violation of the selenuim standards.  This means they have to track this element closely, and pay fines and costly cleanup fees when the numbers look too bad.  This cost alone is enough to keep coal companies from even considering mountaintop removal in more marginal areas.

But the new EPA standards are set so high, that almost overnight these folks would become law abiding citizens.  The cost of mountaintop removal would drop, leading to expansion of this system and devastation of more hillsides, streams, and valleys.  

This new regulation is a sucker punch to those who have been fighting to end mountaintop removal, and just more proof (as if we didn’t already have enough) that the Bush administration is hostage to the most short sighted players in the energy industry.

My tip: if you want to see the mountains of West Virginia, go soon.  Like the snows of Kilimanjaro, affordable housing, and an honest Republican, those blue hills are going to be very rare, very soon.

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