December 21, 2007

West Virginia adds fish advisory for selenium

By Ken Ward Jr.
Charleston, W.V Sunday-Gazette-Mail Staff writer

West Virginia regulators have begun warning state residents not to eat fish from certain waterways because of high levels of selenium pollution caused by mining wastes.

The state Bureau for Public Health recommended that anglers limit themselves to one meal per month of any sport fish caught from Mount Storm Lake in Grant County, Upper Mud Lake in Lincoln County and Pinnacle Creek in Wyoming County.

Agency officials announced the move on Wednesday, after reviewing new fish sample data and consulting with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Division of Natural Resources.

The selenium warning was among several changes that were announced in the state’s long list of fish consumption advisories.

“We just wanted to be sure we communicated the presence of this additional problem so consumers can make informed decisions,” said Bill Toomey, project manager at the public health bureau, which is part of the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Among other changes, the state also made its consumption advisory for rock bass — no more than two meals per month — statewide because of high levels of mercury. Previously, that limit had applied only to certain streams. “We determined we should have a little more restrictive advisory,” Toomey said Thursday.

The new selenium fish advisory comes as several state environmental groups are challenging DEP efforts to give the coal industry more time to clean up illegal selenium pollution from its operations.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element that is found in many rocks and soils.

In very tiny amounts, it is an antioxidant that is needed for good health. But in slightly greater amounts, selenium is highly toxic. In humans, it can cause hair loss, nail brittleness and neurological problems such as numbness. In aquatic life, very small amounts of selenium have been found to cause reproductive problems.

In 2003, a broad federal government study of mountaintop removal coal mining found repeated violations of water quality limits for selenium in the water downstream from mining operations. The following year, in 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service produced its own report, finding troubling levels of selenium in fish downstream from mountaintop removal mines.

Selenium can be released into the environment during the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, and by metal smelting. It is also contained in the leachate from coal fly-ash disposal areas.

After the federal reports linking selenium to mountaintop removal, coal industry lobbyists tried — so far unsuccessfully — to persuade lawmakers and the DEP to relax West Virginia’s water quality rules for selenium.

Then, earlier this year, the Manchin administration moved to give nearly 100 coal operators three more years to fix violations of the state’s selenium limits discovered in the 2003 federal study. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Coal River Mountain Watch and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition have appealed that action to the state Environmental Quality Board.

Joe Lovett, a lawyer for the citizen groups, praised state officials for adding the selenium warnings to West Virginia’s fish advisories.

“DEP has been ignoring this problem until now,” Lovett said. “I’m glad that the state is finally taking this seriously, and appears to be taking the first steps to correct it.”

Information about the new fish advisories is available online at