Dead and deformed fish are always the first indication of selenium poisoning in a water source. Selenium poisoning in West Virginia is caused by the practice of mountaintop removal mining.
Fish are dying and being born with severe deformities in West Virginia's Mud River, and scientists have stated that Mud River is headed toward a major toxic event. Once the water and environment is polluted, no amount of time can make it healthy again.
Mountaintop removal mining, which has doubled in the past few years, blasts the top off of a mountain and pushes the excess rock to the neighboring valley to get to the coal beneath. Over the past two decades, mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has buried more than 1,000 miles of streams. Most common in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky, this type of mining causes toxic levels of selenium to leach into rivers and streams.
High levels of selenium, such as those now being found in the Mud River, threaten fish survival and reproduction. If they do reproduce, contaminated fish have offspring with serious birth defects. (In Mud River, 55 to 60 percent of young fish recently tested were deformed because of high concentrations of selenium.) These fish have short life spans and cannot reproduce. Many Mud River fish are being born with severely crooked spines and deformities of the head. Fish samples showed some specimens with two eyes on one side of the head, and others with curved spines.
Selenium levels in fish caught in some of West Virginia's rivers are more than twice what is considered safe for human consumption. Humans need to absorb certain amounts of selenium daily, but extremely high concentrations of selenium can cause reproductive failure and birth defects, as seen with the fish population.
It is selenium discharge from Hobet 21 Mountaintop Removal Mine Site that has devastated the waters of the Mud River. If the waterborne selenium concentrations in the Mud River are not reduced, reproductive toxicity may spiral out of control and fish populations could completely collapse.
The issues at Mud River have been brought to the DEP's door, but, not surprisingly, the DEP has not taken enforcement action against mine operators with selenium violations.
Under state Clean Water Act permits, Hobet 21 discharges its water pollution into tributaries of the Mud River, some of which feed into the Upper Mud Reservoir, which is part of a state wildlife management area. As more of our state's waterways are poisoned, it is up to the residents of West Virginia to demand changes in the clean Water Act. If we don't protect our waterways, who will? The DEP? Remember, folks, here in West Virginia, DEP stands for "Don't Expect Protection."