The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is raising concerns with its regulatory counterparts to the north over a Canadian coal mine’s plan to shut down a water treatment plant in British Columbia, evidently to troubleshoot recurring problems at the facility, a move EPA officials say will pose grave consequences to the downstream waterways of Montana.
In a letter to top officials with the Ministry of Environment and Environment and Climate Change Canada, an EPA official expressed strong misgivings with global mining giant Teck Resources’ proposal to shut down its $120 million West Line Creek facility, which has been bedeviled with operational delays and other challenges from the outset, including a 2014 fish kill that prompted environmental charges.
The author of last month’s letter, Jane Nishida, principal deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs, pointed to a mounting body of evidence showing that mining contaminants spilling across the international border and into two shared bodies of water straddling the boundary — Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River — are negatively impacting a suite of aquatic wildlife.
Meanwhile, the mining operations continue, even as scientists and researchers from a multitude of state, federal and tribal agencies work to develop a site-specific plan for protecting Montana’s world-class watersheds, where they continue to monitor the influx of hazardous mining byproducts.
Specifically, researchers studying Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River report alarming concentrations of a mining contaminant called selenium, which leaches from piles of waste created by coal mines along B.C.’s Elk River and is accumulating in the shared watershed downstream, as well as excessive levels of nitrates.
The need for more stringent water quality standards gained urgency last summer as Teck, which operates five steelmaking coal mines just across the border from Montana, announced plans to shut down its active water quality treatment facility on a tributary of the Elk River called Line Creek.
“These setbacks are of concern to the EPA, as the treatment plants are the primary proposed mechanism to reduce selenium and nitrate loading to the Elk River watershed and Lake Koocanusa,” the EPA’s letter states. “As a result of these ongoing setbacks, the Water Quality Plan’s goal of reducing selenium and nitrate concentrations in waters downstream of mining operations is not being fully met.”
The experimental $120 million water treatment facility was designed to stem the flow of selenium as part of Teck’s pledge to implement the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan. The goal of the plan is to stabilize and reverse the increasing trend of selenium and other substances, “while at the same time allowing for continued sustainable mining in the region,” according to the company.
However, the facility was determined to be releasing an even more biologically toxic form of the contaminant.
Last November, Teck submitted an application to British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy for approval to take the West Line Creek plant offline until at least August of this year.
“Granting Teck’s request would likely increase selenium loads to U.S. waters in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, resulting in more bioaccumulation of selenium in aquatic species and birds,” according to the EPA’s letter.
The letter notes that some fish samples in Lake Kooucanusa already exceed British Columbia’s fish selenium guideline for eggs and ovaries, and selenium fish tissue concentrations have been shown to be increasing.
“We therefore have serious concerns about additional selenium loading to the system that could occur if the treatment plant is taken offline,” the letter states. “In addition, we have concerns and questions about the impacts of the current partial bypass that is occurring. We understand that Teck is already bypassing a portion of the mine water (approximately one-third) without treatment.”
Marcia Smith, Teck’s senior vice president of sustainability and external affairs, explained in a letter that significant work is underway to address concerns in the watershed.
“Challenges related to water quality and mining are complex, and require a comprehensive, long-term approach to solving,” she wrote. “Teck is committed to taking the steps necessary to meet this challenge, and ensuring the health of the watershed for future generations.”
In 2016, the British Columbia Auditor General released an audit chastising provincial mine regulators for “a decade of neglect in compliance and enforcement,” highlighting the coal mines above Lake Koocanusa as particularly egregious examples.
“We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the (Ministry of Energy and Mines) and the (Ministry of Environment) were not met,” B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer wrote in the introduction to the report.
The letter also complains that the EPA has been privy only to limited sections of Teck’s applications, and has not been given the opportunity to review critical monitoring data and water quality modeling results.
“The limited information that we have received to date appears insufficient to support a finding that the proposed shutdown is warranted,” according to the letter. “Until complete information is provided regarding predicted changes to Lake Koocanusa water quality and aquatic resources, the EPA has serious questions about the possibility of allowing the West Line Creek treatment plant to remain offline for as much as a full year.”
A 2010 Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation on Environmental Protection, Climate Action and Energy between British Columbia and Montana includes the expectation that information will be shared proactively on approvals and permits that have potential transboundary water quality impacts.
In November, in an unprecedented show of state-and-federal solidarity on the issue, Gov. Steve Bullock Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, both Montana Democrats, called upon Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to enact a stronger framework to protect the shared resources, and asked for more stringent, bilateral water quality standards to protect one of Montana’s greatest assets. In response, Tillerson pledged to spearhead a plan to tackle the decade-long problem.
Leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have formally requested that the federal government refer the impaired watershed to the International Joint Commission, joining with the Ktunaxa National Council and the Council of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho in making the request.
Under the Boundary Waters Treaty, signed in 1909, Canada and the U.S. agreed that shared waters cannot be polluted on either side of the border, to cause injury on the other side.