Kentucky Releases Revised Selenium Proposal, With Minimal Tweaks

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and environmental groups are still at odds over proposed changes to Kentucky’s water quality standard for a substance called selenium. The state released its revised proposal today.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element that is released into waterways during mountaintop removal mining.  Studies have found it’s toxic to aquatic life, and high-level exposure has been linked to health problems in humans.

When the commonwealth’s proposed changes to the selenium standard went before a legislative committee in February, environmental groups testified against it. It loosens the short-term standard (from 20 to 258 micrograms per liter) and changes the way the long-term standard is measured.

Department for Environmental Protection Commissioner Bruce Scott says the new standards are based on the latest science. Many other states have already gotten rid of the short-term standard, because it’s been overturned by courts, and Scott says the proposed changes will provide more protection for Kentucky waterways.

The proposed long-term, or chronic, standard is a two-tiered approach. If water tests reveal more than 5 micrograms per liter of selenium, there’s mandated fish tissue sampling. Scott says fish tissue is the best way to measure selenium, because the substance bioaccumulates in the food chain.

“And we just aren’t seeing significant issues with selenium,” Scott said. “We do see it, in some isolated situations. And in fact, that’s what this standard is intended to do is to verify that there are problems and to address them.”

But Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council says the state’s revision of the proposal doesn’t address any of his concerns. He says relying on testing fish tissue to determine whether the selenium standard is exceeded does little to protect aquatic life, because it only indicates a problem once the species have already been affected. He also says the cabinet should have gotten its proposal peer-reviewed.

“I think the appropriate approach would be for the cabinet to have vetted this and sought peer review, rather than to forge ahead with very little time for expert peer review of the methodology and the number,” FitzGerald said.

The new standards will be before the Administrative Regulation Review Committee next week. If it passes that committee, it will go before the Joint Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment. If lawmakers sign off on it, the new standards will become law in Kentucky—though the Environmental Protection Agency still will eventually have to approve the standard.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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