Judge: West Virginia impoundment violated selenium limit

CHARLESTON (AP) — An Alpha Natural Resources coal slurry impoundment in Raleigh County has violated the state’s water quality standard for selenium, a federal judge ruled in a lawsuit filed against the coal company by environmental groups.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers also found that discharges from Alpha subsidiary Marfork Coal’s Brushy Fork impoundment violated the company’s state pollution permit.

Water samples taken in 2012 by the company and a consultant hired by the plaintiffs found selenium concentrations that exceeded the state’s limit on average selenium levels, Chambers said in his ruling issued last week.

The samples were taken at the impoundment’s pollution outfall, which discharges downhill by a spillway into the remains of a stream known as Brushy Fork, which Chambers said is “at this point little more than a pond.” Brushy Fork’s water joins with water in Little Marsh Fork.

The Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Coal River Mountain Watch filed the lawsuit in May 2012 against Marfork. The lawsuit alleged that discharges from the impoundment exceed state water quality standards for selenium, and that the discharges violate the company’s discharge permit.

“Again it is the citizens who shoulder the task of making sure these coal companies are ‘running right,'” Coal River Mountain Watch co-director Debbie Jarrell told the Sunday Gazette-Mail, using the term for Alpha’s corporate safety and environmental program.

Alpha spokesman Steve Higginbottom told the newspaper that the state Department of Environmental Protection recently renewed the company’s permits for the Brushy Fork site.

“We have agreed with DEP to install selenium treatment on a specified schedule, and we are currently in compliance with our schedule,” Higginbottom said.

The agreement gives Alpha until March 2016 to comply with the state’s water quality standard for selenium. It does not specify a type of treatment, the newspaper reported.

Higginbottom said that Alpha continues to believe that it should have been shielded from the lawsuit under a 2012 state law.

The law aimed to declare coal companies in compliance with state water pollution laws as long as they meet discharge limits for specific chemicals listed in their permits. Brushy Fork’s permit does not specifically limit selenium.

Chambers ruled in August 2013 that the law did not block citizen lawsuits such as the Brushy Fork case.

“It’s a shame that community groups have to do the work of regulatory agencies,” Vernon Haltom, Coal River Mountain Watch’s executive director, told the newspaper.

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