Scrutiny and Concerns Intensify as B.C. Coal Mining Contaminants Rise in Montana Waters

B.C. government orders global mining giant to address negative impacts on transboundary watershed

EUREKA – Researchers are ramping up monitoring efforts to better grasp the severity of contaminants in Lake Koocanusa and its transboundary watershed, while the largest diversified mining company in Canada is developing a formal action plan to address a possible environmental hazard spanning the border.

Concerns have spiked in both countries in the past year and attention has intensified on the Elk Valley drainage in southeastern British Columbia and Teck Coal Limited, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates five world-class steelmaking coal mines across the border from Montana.

The heavy scrutiny is centered on increasing amounts of contamination from coal waste by-products leaching into the Elk River and its many tributaries, which drain into two bodies of water shared by B.C. and Montana: Koocanusa and the Kootenai River.

Samples of fish species and water quality taken from Lake Koocanusa and other monitoring sites in the Elk basin have revealed heightened levels of selenium, cadmium, nitrate and sulphate from decades of coal mining activity.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element that can become highly toxic when present in elevated concentrations. It’s known to cause deformities in fish eggs, incidents of which have been documented in the Elk basin. Other recent studies, including a damning report by researchers at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, along with disturbing data samples taken locally have prompted worries about long-term impacts to the entire watershed and its resident wildlife.

State and federal researchers in the U.S. are involved in expansive monitoring at several sites, including Koocanusa, in an effort to understand the breadth of contamination occurring from the upstream coal mining, according to officials who explained the situation at a public meeting in Eureka on Aug. 14.

“It does look like detections are becoming more frequent,” said Mark Bostrom, chief of the planning, prevention and assistance division of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Data collected this year by researchers from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks further punctuated the worsening situation. Each of the fish species tested in the massive reservoir contained higher levels of selenium in muscle tissues and eggs than in 2008, according to Trevor Selch, a pollution control biologist with FWP. The fish species, which included bull and rainbow trout, kokanee salmon and longnose suckers, provide the best bio indicators of contamination, he said.

The average fish that was tested did have selenium levels below the suggested threshold, but some of the bottom feeders, like pearmouth, ranged well above the generally accepted threshold in the U.S., according to Selch. But for certain, every test revealed heightened levels of contamination over a short timeframe, he added.

“We’ve seen statistically significant changes in the samples,” Selch said.

The Montana DEQ included Lake Koocanusa on its list of impaired waters in the spring of 2012 related to the impacts of upstream coal mining. American Rivers, a nationwide conservation group, named the Kootenai one of the most endangered rivers in the U.S. due to the ongoing contamination. A conservation group in Canada, British Columbia’s Outdoor Recreation Council, announced a similar declaration for the Elk River, naming it one of the country’s three most endangered rivers.

At the urging of Montana’s two U.S. senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a strong-worded letter to Canada’s environmental agency, Environment Canada, and its minister, Peter Kent, in December. The letter, written by then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, described the U.S. government’s rising level of concern surrounding its waterways being polluted. Jackson urged the Canadian government to take steps to prevent further damage in the watershed and to assess cumulative impacts of the ongoing mining operations before making permitting decisions on Teck’s mines.

Jackson’s letter concluded with a noticeable mention — some would say a warning — of bringing in the international organization that settles disputes between the two countries.

“Like Environment Canada, the EPA recognizes the importance of maintaining a binational approach to transboundary water issues that respects both economic and environmental concerns,” Jackson wrote. “Moreover, a cooperative bilateral approach on potential mine development in the Elk River Valley could obviate the need for a joint reference to the International Joint Commission.”

In the wake of mounting criticism, the British Columbia government issued an unprecedented order requiring Teck to address the persistent leaching of contaminants from its mining sites.

The abrupt order, issued in April by the province’s Environment Minister Terry Lake, is the first of its kind in British Columbia.

It requires Teck to develop a comprehensive management plan for reducing high levels of selenium and other contaminants and reverse the negative trend in the Elk’s water quality. The company welcomed the order as a “constructive way to move forward.”

“This region is where we live and raise our families. We care deeply about ensuring the environment is protected,” Mark Digel, manager of permitting with Teck, told the crowd gathered in Eureka last week. “We are taking action to ensure that water quality is protected in the valley now and for generations to come.”

In July, Teck submitted its terms of reference to the Canadian government, outlining the scope and process for developing the “Elk Valley Water Quality Plan.”

Digel said Teck plans to invest up to $600 million over the next five years for the installation of water diversion and treatment facilities, investments in research and development to improve selenium management, and ongoing aquatic monitoring. One full-scale treatment plant is already under construction at the West Line Creek facility.

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