Proposed Emergency Rule Weakens Aluminum Water Quality Standard
The State Journal
4 March 2013
By Pam Kasey
A revision that would weaken the state water quality standards for
aluminum and beryllium has been proposed on an emergency basis by
the Department of Environmental Protection and is due for
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant has 42 days from the day of
filing, or until March 13, to decide if there truly is an
Agencies propose emergency rules when the legislative rulemaking
process would take too long to avoid negative consequences.
DEP's justification for regarding this as an emergency is that,
without it, the coal and quarry industries will incur unnecessary
water treatment costs and the agency will devote resources that
could be put to better use.
The proposal would change dissolved aluminum criteria and the
human health beryllium criterion in the state water quality
For dissolved aluminum, the filing proposes in place of existing
numeric criteria a hardness-based calculation to determine limits.
Acute and chronic exposure to aluminum at higher concentrations in
the hundreds of micrograms/liter has been shown to stunt and kill
aquatic organisms including algae and fish.
But studies also show the toxicity of dissolved aluminum is
directly related to hardness — essentially, mineral content —
according to the agency's filing.
The proposal would replace the numeric limits — acute and chronic
standards of 750 micrograms/liter in warm water, and an acute
standard of 750 micrograms/liter and a chronic standard of 87
micrograms/liter for trout waters — with limits based on
The proposed equation mainly weakens the standard.
At the very lowest levels of hardness, it results in both more
stringent acute and chronic standards.
But at hardnesses above about 60 milligrams/liter — the range a
random sampling of West Virginia streams falls into on DEP's
website — the equation results in a much more lenient standard.
The chronic standard would rise to about 2,500 micrograms/liter
aluminum at a hardness of 150 milligrams per liter and to over
4,000 when hardness is above 220. The pattern is the same for the
A similar approach has been used to set standards in Colorado and
New Mexico and was approved by those states' regional EPA offices
and by EPA headquarters, according to the filing.
It's unclear whether science that applies to western stream
chemistry necessarily applies to eastern stream chemistry. EPA
Region 3, which has to approve any change to the state's water
quality standard, could not be reached to comment on that.
Dan Ramsey, a former employee of the Division of Natural Resources
and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, followed the regulatory
process some years ago when the water quality standard was changed
from one that applied to total aluminum to one that applies only
to dissolved aluminum, and he has concerns.
"Aluminum stream chemistry is complex and toxicity of the metal is
dependent on factors other than hardness, especially in
headwaters," Ramsey said.
"Early aquatic life forms are more susceptible to aluminum than
mature forms, and changes in water chemistry through time, organic
matter, and water quality at mixing zones are also factors. There
are also different forms of Al that must be considered, and
toxicity of some forms is not well understood," he said. "I don't
believe there is evidence to support the present effort to change
the aluminum standard, and certainly there is no ‘emergency' to
In anticipation of the rule revision moving forward, DEP has asked
coal and quarry operators holding discharge permits with aluminum
effluent limits or monitoring requirements to have water samples
analyzed for hardness twice each month.
As it affects beryllium, the proposed emergency rule filing said
the human health criterion is being updated to reflect
Environmental Protection Agency goals. The proposal would
amend the beryllium standard from 0.0077 micrograms/liter to 4
"By amending both the dissolved aluminum and the beryllium
standards, West Virginia can avoid substantial harm to both the
regulated community and the agency while maintaining the level of
protection necessary for its aquatic life and human health," the
If approved by Tennant and then by EPA Region 3, the change to the
water quality standards would be in effect, according to the
practice for emergency rules, for up to 15 months.
For a permanent revision of the standards, the changes would be
included in the 2014 Triennial Review of water quality standards
for legislative and EPA approval.
A public hearing on the emergency rule is scheduled for 6 p.m. on
March 27 at DEP's offices in Charleston.
Written comments may be mailed until that time to Kevin Coyne,
Water Quality Standards Program, West Virginia Department of
Environmental Protection, 601 57th Street SE, Charleston WV 25304.