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Lawmakers Consider Change To Water Quality Standards

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State lawmakers are not scientists, but for the first time ever they are debating a bill that would change Tennessee water quality standards.

It's being pushed by the coal mining industry, and it comes as a Tennessee coal company faces a federal lawsuit for releasing too much of a toxic substance from a mountain top mining site.

Critics claim the coal industry is pushing the bill to help it fight the lawsuit. The coal industry disagrees.

Zeb Mountain, in East Tennessee, north of Knoxville is the state's largest mountain top mine. It's mined by the National Coal Corporation.

The blasting that is part of mountain top mining exposes mineral called selenium which can contaminate nearby streams. 

In high levels selenium can kill fish and is toxic to people.

Last summer environmental groups did testing in streams around Zeb Mountain and discovered selenium levels well above state limits.

"We are dedicated to providing independent testing of the coal companies," said Matt Landon with United Mountain Defense. He is a volunteer who tests numerous mining areas.

"The coal companies are not concerned about the quality of the water coming out of these mining sites," said Landon.

Environmental groups filed the lawsuit against National Coal last summer.

The lawsuit claims National Coal's own tests found selenium levels eight to twenty times higher than the state allows.

The lawsuit seeks more than $32,000 in penalties for each day the company releases high levels of selenium.

At the start of this legislative session coal industry lobbyists started pushing an unusual bill. 

It would raise allowable levels of selenium in Tennessee streams.

Brian Paddock with the Sierra Club was surprised lawmakers would consider the bill, "They're really kind of working out of their range of expertise," he said.

Whether to change water standards is usually left up to experts on the water quality control board.

Representative Mike McDonald, a democrat from Portland, Tennessee has lead the fight against the bill.

"Why do we have to have legislation and do something we've never done before?" McDonald asked in a committee hearing.

The bill would basically raise allowable levels of selenium twelve times higher than they are now.  Opponents say the only possible reason is the lawsuit.

"We can find no other explanation," said Brian Paddock.

The coal industry disagrees.

Investigative Reporter Ben Hall asked the attorney presenting the bill, "What impact would changing the selenium standards have on that lawsuit?"

Attorney Bill Penny responded, "I don't think it would have any impact on that lawsuit."

But Bill Penny also happens to work for the law firm representing National Coal in lawsuit filed last summer.

"With regard to the lawsuit, while my firm is doing it, I am not familiar with that lawsuit and I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on it," said Penny.

Coal companies argue the state's selenium standard is outdated and needs to be raised to a standard reviewed, but never adopted by the EPA.

"What it would do is bring us up to current science," said Chuck Laine.  He represents the Tennessee Mining Association.

The president of National Coal - Dan Roling contributed $1,000 dollars to the Senate sponsor of  the selenium bill, so did Gary Asher President Apollo Fuels -- another coal company.  The selenium bill has already passed the senate.

Environmental groups say the bill shows how powerful the coal industry is and the impact that power could have on Tennessee's mountains and streams.

"We're caving into one industry and we're moving this through the process real fast, and I don't think it benefits the public," said Representative McDonald.

The state attorney general just released an opinion saying the EPA would likely reject this bill if lawmakers pass it.

But Critics say if the bill passes it would still muddy the waters for the lawsuit because coal companies could argue to a judge that lawmakers passed a new standard and the issue is still under debate.

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