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Mining company is asking state regulators to allow changes to selenium monitoring

On August 23, the Virginia Water Quality Board voted to approve a petition from a coal company, Clintwood JOD, to change how it monitors for selenium. The company requested to incorporate new monitoring rules for its sites in Buchanan County, to do fish tissue sampling, in addition to water column testing, to follow national criteria established by the EPA in 2016. In a presentation before the board, staff with Virginia Department of Environmental Quality voiced concerns with the change, but still recommended to allow the company to change its monitoring system. It recommended not to make changes to the statewide rules, but to look at the company's request as a "pilot" for considering a possible change statewide. One board member voted against the petition.

Original story:
A mining company in southwest Virginia is asking the state to change how it monitors for selenium, a naturally occurring element, which all animals need to survive. Some industries, including coal mining, release it into water sources, and at high levels it’s toxic, especially to fish, amphibians, and birds.

If selenium gets into their bodies, it spreads to their eggs, creating deformity and even death, for their offspring.

“So egg laying animals are very, very susceptible to selenium toxicity,” said William Hopkins, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech. He said water monitoring alone cannot easily predict whether selenium will get into an animal’s body.

“And so what really matters, is how much of the selenium gets into an animal’s tissue, because that’s ultimately what results in it ending up in the egg and causing toxicity to the young birds or the young fish,” Hopkins explained.

Virginia only requires companies to do water testing for selenium.

In 2016, the federal government released new guidelines, advising states to add fish tissue sampling. It’s a more accurate assessment of selenium toxicity, but far more difficult logistically.

These federal regulations are very complicated, and regulators and scientists are still debating, and updating, some of the details.

Several states, including West Virginia and Kentucky, changed their state requirements, to model most of the recommendations from the EPA.

Now, a mining company, Clintwood JOD, is asking Virginia to do the same. It says it would be simpler if all its mines in the region were under similar rules.

But an environmental group, Appalachian Voices, says the company has a history of exceeding selenium limits. Willie Dodson, with Appalachian Voices, says relying on fish sampling also would make it nearly impossible for citizen scientists to double check the company’s data.

“The protocols for just, collecting a grab sample of water in a bottle and sending it to a lab and having valid data result from that, are quite approachable for people who just live next to mines, who may not have any kind of scientific background,” Dodson said.

“That is not true for collecting fish and measuring the level of selenium in fish.”

Virginia’s Water Quality Board will meet Wednesday, Aug. 23 at 10:30 to consider Clintwood JOD’s proposal. The company did not respond to several requests from Radio IQ to talk for this story.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.