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Lawmakers Consider Relaxing State’s Water Standards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Lawmakers heard from an expert Tuesday who warned of large fish kills if a proposed bill becomes law.

The coal industry is pushing the bill which relaxes state water quality standards.

Investigative Reporter Ben Hall tells us, why a federal lawsuit raises questions about the bill's timing.

Dr. Dennis Lemly with the US Forrest service urged lawmakers not relax water quality standards for selenium.

He came with slides showing the damage selenium can do to young blue gill fish.

"Based on the work I've done 7.9 would kill a lot of fish," said Lemly.

Selenium levels can rise around coal mining sites - too much kills fish and can be toxic to people. 

The coal industry wants state lawmakers to change the way selenium is measured in Tennessee's streams allowing for higher levels.

"We believe and understand that too much selenium is bad we're advocating we go to the best science," said attorney Bill Penny.

The shift in the law comes as National Coal faces a lawsuit for releasing too much selenium at a mountaintop mining site in East Tennessee - as much as twenty times higher than current levels. 

The lawsuit seeks damages of more than $32,000 for each day of violation.

"The coal industry wants to raise this and the obvious reason is they are being sued in U.S. district court," said State Rep. Mike McDonald.

It's a charge the mining industry denies.

"What impact would changing the selenium standard have on the lawsuit?" asked reporter Ben Hall.

"I don't think would have any impact on that lawsuit," said Penny.

Even after hearing warnings the bill continued its steady advance. Opponents are frustrated because lawmakers have never before set water quality standards. It's usually left up to experts on the Water Quality Control Board.

"We're not scientists we usually don't pass bills to dictate what water selenium levels or any other levels should be," said McDonald.

The expert on Selenium worries about the newly proposed level.

The bill continues to move through the legislature. It has already passed in the Senate. The full house will vote later this week.

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