Selenium in West Virginia Watersheds: a comprehensive analysis of the revised selenium standard

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Agriculture


Selenium is increasingly becoming a concern in watersheds affected by coal mining operations. Aquatic species like fish are especially vulnerable to selenium bioaccumulation as it is linked to physical deformities and disturbances to reproductive systems. Without proper monitoring and regulation, entire watersheds can be decimated by selenium pollution and human communities harmed by the loss of environmental services naturally provided by local watersheds. While previously requiring only water column concentrations of selenium, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) recently enacted a policy allowing the monitoring of fish tissue or egg/ovary concentrations of selenium for coal mining permits with sites struggling to maintain compliance of water concentrations of selenium. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines, this alternative method of monitoring selenium in fish is touted as the most scientifically justified approach to tracking selenium pollution in watersheds. Due to general availability and cost effectiveness, fish tissue monitoring has been the most widely adopted method for monitoring selenium in West Virginia. My analysis concentrates on the development, implementation, and reception of the new fish tissue policy through analyses of selenium research, WVDEP regulations, industry and environmental organization interviews, and collected fish tissue data belonging to one large coal company operating in West Virginia to serve as an example of the ranges of fish selenium concentrations and risks to fish communities. This interdisciplinary approach to the West Virginia fish tissue policy provides a comprehensive examination of the consequences of employing fish tissue as the primary standard for monitoring selenium in many watersheds. Although initially positively received by coal companies, the fish tissue standard for monitoring selenium has since garnered criticism from both coal operators and environmental groups. Ultimately, WVDEP’s implementation of the fish tissue standard has resulted in failures to both significantly protect water quality and assist coal operators with permit closures. The inability of coal operators to limit their own pollution in accordance with water quality standards is a failure on its own, but continuation of the fish tissue policy in its current existence would be a misguided move on the part of WVDEP.



selenium, west virginia, watersheds


Yates, Jessica Elaine. "Selenium in West Virginia Watersheds: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Revised Selenium Standard." Montana State University, 2022, pp. 1-50.
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