Concerns Renewed as B.C. Coal Mining Pollutants Increase in Montana Watershed

As new mines are proposed in the region, scrutiny intensifies

By Tristan Scott
Mountain top removal coal mining the Elk Valley, B.C. - Courtesy Garth Lenz

With renewed plans to expand coal-mining operations in southeastern British Columbia’s Elk River drainage, located upstream from one of Montana’s world-class transboundary watersheds, researchers and government agencies are intensifying scrutiny on environmental hazards spanning the border.

The concerns center on increasing amounts of coal waste byproducts leaching into the heavily mined Elk River and its many tributaries, which drain into two bodies of water shared by B.C. and Montana – Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River – both of which are showing increased levels of mining contaminants like selenium in the muscle tissue of fish species.

There are currently five coal mines in the Elk River Valley that are causing toxic pollution, all of which have launched expansion proposals that are in the exploration, permitting or development stage. Operated by Teck Coal Limited, the world’s second-largest exporter of metallurgical coal, the mines produce approximately 70 percent of Canada’s total annual coal exports, and directly employ more than 4,500 full-time workers.

“The plans for expansion (at one mine) are equivalent to a new mine footprint,” said Erin Sexton, a research scientist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana tracking the issue, while articulating the concerns to members of the Flathead Basin Commission last week. “This is concerning, particularly as we continue to see alarming data with respect to elevated levels of contaminants from the existing mines.”

In 2013, the B.C. government ordered Teck Coal to address the issue of contaminants in the Elk River drainage, resulting in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan and Technical Advisory Committee. The committee was comprised of leading scientists from provincial, state and both Canadian and U.S. federal governments, along with Teck’s staff and contractors. Representatives of the Ktunaxa Nation were also at the forefront of the committee, and the plan is under review by the provincial government.

All five Teck mines are open-pit, truck and shovel mines. As part of the water quality plan, Teck opened the first of six water treatment plants, a $120 million treatment plant called the West Line Creek Water Treatment Facility, to remove a metal-like element called selenium and other contaminants from Line Creek.

However, the facility was taken off line last month because of a fish kill downstream from the plant. The cause of the fish kill is still unknown, but may have to do with increased oxygenation in the water. The plant is the first facility opened as part of a $600 million, five-year plan to address the pollution threat to westslope cutthroat trout and other aquatic life in the Elk Valley, and its closure illustrates the challenges of such a large-scale cleanup.

“The Elk River is shot at this point. Its story has been told and it’s now a matter of remediation,” Sexton said, adding that contaminants are causing spinal deformities in westslope cutthroat trout in the Elk River and adversely impacting reproduction. “We need to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen downstream in Montana.”

What remains unknown, due in large part to a dearth of science-based research in Lake Koocanusa, are the consequences of mining byproducts to the aquatic health of Montana’s transboundary watershed and its residents.

Eric Urban, of the Department of Environmental Quality, said levels of pollution in the Elk River and its tributaries far exceed those in Lake Koocanusa; while it’s apparent that Lake Koocanusa is showing increased levels of contaminants, like selenium, nitrate, cadmium, and sulfate, it’s unclear whether the pollutants are resulting in consequences harmful to fish reproduction or human consumption.

“We’ve got a well-known increase in selenium loading in Lake Koocanusa, and I would say that all parties involved agree that action needs to be taken, including Teck,” Urban said. “We do not know at this time if there is harm occurring in Lake Koocanusa. We are working with Canada to assess the impacts. That is where Montana’s interest lies. But the Elk River Valley is a whole different animal.”

Sexton said muscle-tissue samples collected between 2008 and 2013 from all seven species of fish present in Lake Koocanusa show increasing trends in elevated selenium levels.

“Every single fish species showed increases of selenium in their muscle tissue,” she said.

Clint Muhlfeld, an aquatic ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Glacier National Park field office, painted a grim picture of the watershed’s future without swift recourse, saying the transboundary Kootenai River Basin contains critical habitat for the endangered bull trout, the westslope cutthroat and the endangered white sturgeon below Libby Dam.

“There are several indicators that the Elk River is nearing or has already exceeded a critical tipping point. Selenium is a ticking time bomb, and its effects are being realized all the way down the transboundary river system and into Lake Koocanusa,” Muhlfeld said. “This is an ecological catastrophe that is occurring, and it is not just isolated to the Elk. It is clearly impacting the entire system from the top down and it’s only going to get worse. It’s by far the biggest ecological threat facing the Northern Rocky Mountain ecosystem and the Crown of the Continent.”

Muhlfeld called for funding of a broad-based, comprehensive assessment of the deleterious effects selenium poses to fish species in the transboundary watershed.

But Julie DalSoglio of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Montana office said the most glaring issue she saw with the Technical Advisory Committee’s draft Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, expected to be approved this month, was the omission of Lake Koocanusa from its purview.

“Their modeling did not include the Koocanusa Reservoir, and that was unfortunate because that was the biggest reason that we were at the table,” she said. “We’d like to focus broader research efforts there.”

Also underway is an Area Based Management Plan for a water discharge permit under the Environmental Management Act (EMA), currently being negotiated between Montana and B.C. to regulate the effects of mining activities on shared transboundary resources like Lake Koocanusa.

In a Nov. 14 letter from DEQ Director Tracy Stone-Manning to B.C.’s Minister of Environment Mary Polak, Stone-Manning articulated the DEQ’s concern over the draft permit, particularly with regard to incomplete science detailing selenium impacts in Lake Koocanusa.

“We feel the permit could be more protective without unduly impacting the development of the valley’s important coal resources,” the letter states.

The letter also expresses concern over the draft management plan’s reliance on new treatment technology, like the facility at Line Creek.

In 2012, the Montana DEQ included Lake Koocanusa on its list of impaired waters due 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.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Ktunaxa Nation and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho have urged government agencies to refer the matter of impaired water quality in the Elk and Kootenai river basins to the International Joint Commission. However, formally triggering action by the IJC requires a joint referral between the United States and Canada, and so far the Canadian government has not entertained the notion.

“It’s politics, pure and simple,” said DalSoglio of the EPA.

Urban, of the DEQ, said Teck has been cooperative every step of the way, and the company did not shy away from cost estimates that peg the price tag for long-term mitigation of the Elk River at $2 billion.

“They don’t seem to be too frightened by that figure,” he said.

Urban also explained that the water treatment technology Teck is employing has never been used on such a large scale, and early challenges are not surprising.

He echoed the need for additional science on the transboundary watershed.

“The reservoir doesn’t recognize political boundaries, and the best way to address the state of Montana’s concerns is through continued communication with the B.C. government and continuing to push for sound science in Lake Koocanusa,” he said. “Right now, we are not terrified. We have the opportunity to turn this freight train around for Montana.”

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