Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

April 26, 2013

RONNIE ELLIS: Questions on selenium levels needed to be asked

FRANKFORT — I was never good at science. So I can’t tell you if there is a scientific basis to support a proposed new standard for selenium levels in water near mining sites.

But I have learned, as a reporter, that if someone seems to be hiding some information or have a private interest in a decision, it’s wise to ask why.

I’m talking about the Kentucky Cabinet for Energy and Environment’s and coal industry supporters’ testimony before the General Assembly’s Administrative Regulations Review Subcommittee in support of a new selenium regulation. (Selenium is a chemical in mineral ores and also found in trace amounts in animal cells but toxic at higher levels.)

Maybe the fact a coal company executive is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has nothing to do with the Chamber’s support of the new selenium standard. But are people surprised environmentalists wonder? My experience with the legislative staff person assigned to the subcommittee tells me he is a pro and absolutely honorable. But is anyone surprised those with genuine fears about the new standard might wonder if the process was “gamed” when they learn he is the father-in-law of the cabinet bureaucrat pushing the new regulation?

A friend of mine is an elected official presently facing allegations of misconduct. Is there any possibility anything I wrote about his case would have any credibility with those who know of our friendship?

But those sorts of consideration apparently never occurred to the Energy and Environment Cabinet or the Chamber.

When the regulation first attracted criticism at the subcommittee’s February meeting, the cabinet agreed to additional meetings with “key stakeholders.” But when I showed up at one of the meetings, I was told the meeting wasn’t public and I had no right to be there (I was not asked to leave). Aren’t the public and our papers’ readers, many of whom live directly downstream from the mining sites, “key stakeholders?”

Later the cabinet issued a notice referencing the “public meetings” it held, including the meeting I attended. Well, which is it?

When time for the vote came, some lawmakers wanted to reject the amended regulation in favor of retaining the current, lower level standard – only to learn if they did, the process would guarantee no selenium standard at all. What choice did they have and is it any wonder if they suspected they’d been “backed into a corner?”

“As we went through that process, something just didn’t feel right,” said subcommittee member Rep. Tommy Turner, R-Somerset.

I began this column pointing out I’m no scientist. The cabinet secretary has kindly reminded me of that when I’ve questioned some of the cabinet’s actions. But the cabinet either didn’t notice or didn’t care when a coal company submitted a report of its pollution discharges supposedly occurring in August and September of 2009 but signed and dated in July 2009.

Do I really need a science degree to question that report? The scientific credentials of the cabinet staff apparently weren’t sufficient to prevent the report from being approved.

During debate on the selenium regulation, lawmakers noted the complexity of the science and some who voted for the amended regulation said they relied on the expertise and good faith of cabinet officials in doing so. Would they have felt so comfortable doing that if they’d known about the misdated discharge monitoring report?

Rather than criticizing media coverage and the objections of the people who live near those polluted streams, the cabinet and industry apologists should work on improving their own credibility.

After all, somebody might be paying attention.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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