By Mike Toney
A coal company responsible for some of the highest discharges of a pollutant with toxic effects for West Virginia’s aquatic life has proposed a cleanup plan under court order to get in compliance with federal water pollution laws.
The Lexington Coal Company filed a remediation plan in federal court for two mine sites in Mingo County earlier this month. The court had ordered the Kentucky-based company to submit a remediation plan and comply with selenium pollution limits within a year of submitting the plan.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia’s order last month had been requested by environmental groups in September after discussions to settle a lawsuit they filed against Lexington Coal in August 2019. The suit alleged the company was discharging pollutants illegally at its Low Gap Surface Mine No. 2 and No. 10 Mine.
Both mine sites are located in the Tug Fork River watershed.
The court had already found Lexington Coal liable for violating the conditions of its permit limiting discharges of selenium.
Selenium accumulation in larval aquatic insects and fish from mine-impacted streams has long eaten away at the biodiversity of central Appalachian waters.
Selenium is an essential mineral that is critical to human health in small amounts. But at high concentrations, it can cause nausea, hair and nail loss, skin rashes, fatigue and nervous system abnormalities.
There’s only a “modest difference” between selenium consumption levels thought to promote human health and those linked to acute or chronic effects, according to a 2020 International Joint Commission report.
Toxic human exposure may occur when selenium levels build up in ecosystems via leaching from mining waste into aquatic systems and emissions from burning coal or other industrial activities, the report observed.
West Virginia is home to the highest industrial selenium pollution levels in the country.
A Gazette-Mail review of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data found in November that 41 of the 50 industrial point sources with effluent limit exceedances that discharged the most selenium in 2021 were in West Virginia.
One of the highest selenium-discharging industrial point sources was the No. 10 Mine.
In his decision last month [December 2021], U.S. District Court Judge Robert Chambers found that the environmental group plaintiffs — the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club — had adequately demonstrated Lexington Coal was still violating selenium fish-tissue limits.
Chambers also noted expert reports from the environmental groups showed the streams below Lexington Coal’s mines are still biologically impaired, and that the degradation is “causally related” to the company’s discharges of ionic pollutants. The judge cited conductivity and sulfate reports from the spring of 2021 in his order showing high pollutant levels.
Chambers ordered Lexington Coal to submit a plan to comply with federal Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Act regulations within 30 days, and comply with selenium limits within one year of submitting the plan.
The plan was filed with the court on Lexington Coal’s behalf by Danville-based Range Environmental Resources.
Lexington Coal could not be reached for comment. The company’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
The plan calls for using naturally occurring groundwater containing increased iron concentration to induce a reaction between iron and selenium. The reaction yields iron oxide selenium complexes which result in a reduction of selenium in the discharge and a complex that renders the selenium “somewhat biologically inert,” according to the filing.
The two sites will use pumps that inject iron-containing source water like groundwater from a well into a mixing zone, where the source water is mixed with raw discharge water from the discharge source to facilitate water treatment, according to the plan.
But Sierra Club Senior Attorney Peter Morgan questions the plan’s soundness.
“We’ve been bringing selenium enforcement cases against coal mines for at least 15 years now in West Virginia, and we’ve never before seen such a simplistic treatment system proposed,” Morgan said.
The environmental groups have not yet filed a response to the plan.
Morgan said reducing selenium isn’t as easy as just pumping up groundwater high in iron.
“If such a simple and inexpensive solution were available, we would have seen it previously in our 15 years of selenium enforcement,” Morgan said. “We’ve never seen it, and I think that’s because the chemistry just doesn’t play out the way they’re saying it will.”
Morgan said … environmental advocates see elevated selenium and iron levels occurring together too often in discharge monitoring reports for iron to be accepted as the solution to elevated selenium levels.
But the system laid out in the remediation plan has been used on other properties in West Virginia under approval by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Lexington Coal’s plan notes.
Lexington Coal’s Surface Mine No. 9, also in the Tug Fork River watershed, is using a well that produces water with iron that is then discharged into a pond to treat for selenium, Department of Environmental Protection acting spokesman Terry Fletcher said.
The treatment system has been functioning and staying in compliance, Fletcher said. Fletcher noted the system was installed six to eight years ago.
The plan was authored by Jeremy Starks, vice president of sales and marketing for Range Environmental Resources.
Selenium is especially costly to treat in industrial wastewater.
Treating selenium in industrial wastewater can be challenging for engineers and plant operators due to low concentrations and discharge limits, and the element’s complex chemical nature, according to a 2018 study published in Journal of Water Supply: Research and Technology-Aqua.
As more coal operators near bankruptcy with their industry in decline, the high costs of selenium cleanup could fall to taxpayers.
Note: A slightly longer version of this article appeared in the January 25th Charleston Gazette Mail.