The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 9, 2013

Legislation could spare operators federal fines

Bill allows flexibility of selenium levels in water at mines

CHARLESTON — Lawmakers took the offensive Friday in the “war on coal” by letting operators avoid federal fines if levels of selenium are unacceptable in legislation House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley said would avoid a chilling impact on the industry.

Miley said the bill, offered by Delegate Rupie Phillips Jr., D-Logan, allows flexibility in the amount of selenium in water at mine installations.

Rather than hitting operators with steep fines that could shut them down, Miley said production could go on, but owners are obligated to keep monitoring water quality and taking samples through the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University.

Existing standards allow 20 millionths of a gram per liter for acute discharges, and 5 millionths of a gram in chronic discharges, Miley, D-Harrison, said.

Miley said the bipartisan bill, HB2579, is needed “so the coal industry is not crippled if there is a violation of those standards.”

Before the 99-0 vote, Phillips complained that the allowable level of selenium is far too low.

“It’s just another tool the environmentalists and Environmental Protection Agency used to try to shut coal down,” he said.

“It’s time to draw a line in the sand and push back.”

Phillips said the allowable level is unreasonably low, adding that if one turned a garden hose from a dwelling’s water supply into a stream in the backyard, “you’re breaking the law.”

“That water coming to your house has a higher level of selenium in it than what the coal companies are trying to put in the streams,” he said.

Critics of the bill warned that excessive levels of selenium could lead to deformities in aquatic life, but Phillips found it difficult to blame them on the trace element found in vitamins.

“Deformities in fish?” he said.

“People are born with deformities. I’ve seen two-headed snakes. Two-headed calves. Are those to blame in selenium, too?”

Another southern lawmaker passionately in favor, Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, quoted a physician as telling him extra doses of selenium are prescribed for prostate cancer patients.

“Selenium occurs naturally in the body,” Moore said.

“It occurs in foods. And there are comprehensive, validated studies that don’t indicate anything to the contrary about selenium. Where I live, mining is the key to everything we do. I have to make sure that our mining industry is preserved. I don’t think the level of selenium we approved can create a clear and present danger to anyone, any time, for any reasons.”

Delegates also approved HB2351, allowing police officers pulling motorists over for suspended operator’s licenses to take them promptly to a magistrate unless the judge isn’t on duty, or reasonably not available.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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