Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune has sent the federal Environmental Protection Agency a letter asking regulators to reject Kentucky’s proposed selenium standard.
Selenium is a naturally-occurring substance that’s released into waterways during strip mining. In large amounts, it’s toxic to both aquatic life and humans. The Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection sent the new standard to the EPA for approval in May, and is still waiting for a response.
The issue was controversial from the beginning: a legislative committee advanced the measure despite confusion, and environmental groups have argued the new standard isn’t protective of the environment and aquatic life.
In the letter sent yesterday, Michael Brune urges EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to reject the proposed standard:
The Kentucky Division of Water has proposed increasing the acute selenium standard to more than 12 times its current level, and moving the chronic standard to a fish tissue standard that will be effectively unenforceable. Kentucky’s adoption of a fish tissue criterion for an aquatic life water quality standard (as opposed to a human health fish consumption standard) would be wholly unprecedented. Kentucky has already demonstrated that it lacks the capacity and commitment to enforce the current straightforward water column based standards, as shown by the state’s failure to impose selenium effluent limits on a single coal mine despite abundant evidence of high selenium discharges. Fish tissue sampling is much more costly and time-intensive, and therefore Kentucky is even less likely to enforce the proposed standards. Fish tissue sampling also presumes the presence of fish in the receiving streams, but most fish species have already been extirpated from the streams below coal mines. Citizen groups who currently fill the enforcement gap will similarly be unable to satisfy the burdensome fish tissue sampling requirements, leaving the revised standards unenforced.
Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection Commissioner Bruce Scott disagrees. He said the new standard is based on science, and is designed to make sure the selenium isn’t dangerous to aquatic life.
“We don’t agree at all that this is unenforceable,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we think it’s a better mechanism in some ways, because you’re actually measuring whether or not there’s an actual impact via the fish tissue sampling versus whether there’s a suspected or potential impact via the water column.”
A decision on the standard is due soon.