Selenium Poisoning Not Just a Threat to Horses

What a horrible tragedy last week when 21 polo horses mysteriously collapsed and died.  According to the toxicology reports, the horses likely perished from an overdose of selenium in an incorrectly mixed vitamin supplement.  The accidental overdose brought to mind the slow selenium poisoning of Appalachia's drinking water due to coal mining.  

As the Washington Post reported in the horse story, "Selenium is necessary for human cell function in trace amounts but is toxic in very large doses."  So, although selenium is an essential trace element, too much of it can be harmful.  It's highly toxic to aquatic life at relatively low concentrations and, as for humans, chronic exposure (as opposed to very high acute exposure like that which killed the horses) can cause health problems ranging from nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea to hair loss, nail brittleness, and neurological problems.

Stream chemistry monitoring efforts have long shown significant increases in selenium and other pollutants downstream of mountaintop removal operations.  In addition, coal processing leaves behind billions of gallons of toxic waste -- called sludge -- that includes selenium, as well as a host of other dangerous chemicals.  This toxic stew is typically "stored" in unlined earthen structures called slurry dams (like the one pictured below, located above Coal River in West Virginia) or injected underground, often into abandoned underground coal mines.  These toxins are free to seep into the ground water of nearby communities.

Consider the town of Prenter, located in the heart of West Virginia's southern coalfields, where a health survey found that a staggering 97% of residents have suffered from gallbladder disease.  (Brain tumours, thyroid cancer, and skin conditions are also common there.)  In many homes in Prenter, the water leaves the faucet black or orange, and vegetables rot in the garden.  Citizens in Prenter have been lobbying state and national officials for over a year to get help, but officials say they can't do anything -- because they can't confirm that the nearby coal mining has anything to do with the problems the community is facing.

But few would dispute that mountaintop removal causes water pollution.  All the more upsetting then that West Virginia lawmakers seem hell-bent on helping the coal industry continue to stall compliance with water quality standards for toxic selenium pollution.  As Ken Ward, Jr. blogs, legislators are moving forward with such a bill despite opposition by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the West Virginia Environmental Council.

While mass death of horses by selenium poisoning is terrible, the greater tragedy is that selenium pollution threatening Appalachian residents has gone largely unnoticed by the national news media.  Imagine if you feared for your safety or the health of your family every time you turned on the tap or took a drink of water from your well.  No one in America should have to face this sad fact of life, which is all too common in the Appalachian coalfields. 

Clearly, coal is not just dirty, it's also dangerous -- and unless the mining industry is willing to be responsible for ensuring the health and safety of coalfield residents then it has no right to expect to continue its dominant role in America's energy future.  One thing's for sure, clean energy -- from the sun and wind -- is not hazardous to our health.