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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) â¿¿ After a contentious public hearing pitting the coal industry against environmental advocates, the West Virginia House Judiciary Committee, in a near unanimous voice vote, advanced legislation that would weaken the state's selenium regulations.
The bill would authorize the state Department of Environmental Protection to conduct a study to determine state-specific guidelines for how much selenium is acceptable in state waters.
If sites are found to have exceeded selenium guidelines, that would no longer be treated as a punishable violation, but would instead trigger additional monitoring.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets the guidelines for how much selenium is permissible and any change in the state's standards would have to be approved by the agency. If West Virginia changed its standards and the EPA rejected the change, it could lead to litigation.
The EPA has been revising its selenium standards since 2004. An agency spokesman said officials expect to finalize them by the end of this year.
The bill's sponsors contend that the federal regulations are overly restrictive and that selenium has not been proved harmful in West Virginia waterways. They say that West Virginia's fast-moving streams can tolerate higher selenium levels than slow moving rivers and stagnant lakes.
"Our state is better equipped to handle this," said Del. Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, one of the bill's sponsors. "Not a bunch of outsiders coming in telling us how to manage our coal industry."
Del. Clif Moore, D-McDowell, criticized the bill's opponents for impeding economic growth in southern West Virginia and urged the bill's passage.
"I wonder what all these do-gooders were doing a few years ago when McDowell County was literally dying on the economic vine," Moore said.
Selenium is a naturally occurring element that mountaintop removal mining releases into waterways. Studies have found it's harmful to aquatic life, and high-level exposure in humans can damage the kidneys, liver, and central nervous and circulatory systems.