The Elk River hews a southerly path through the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, rushing cold and clear into the Kootenay River at Lake Koocanusa and converging in a sprawling reservoir basin that spans the U.S.-Canada border. The 90-mile long lake even takes its name from a transboundary esprit de corps, a four-syllable portmanteau merging the third-largest tributary of the Columbia River Basin with the two nations it unites – Koo (as in Kootenay), Can (for Canada) and the USA.
The waters, born of the Elk’s glacial origins in southeastern B.C. 140 miles further north, are hailed as premier fisheries for threatened westslope cutthroat and bull trout. They form both a recreational and ecological paradise, providing critical habitat for myriad fish species and a suite of aquatic life, as well as a bastion of boating, fishing, lakeshore camping, and picnicking. Lake Koocanusa and its 425-foot high Libby Dam also govern flood protection and generate hydroelectric power for up to 500,000 average homes in a 300,000 square-mile region.
But trouble has been brewing upstream on the Elk, which is known as much as a rich source of energy development as it is a critical spawning ground for threatened fish. A growing body of research has revealed that the Elk River contains elevated levels of mining contaminants like selenium, nitrogen and sulphate, raising grave concerns about the future of its downstream waterways, where years of testing have shown increasing levels of the hazardous contaminants, which are leaching out of upstream Canadian coal mines and crossing the border into Montana.
The urgency of the issue gained ground in 2013, when a study by two University of Montana researchers uncovered evidence that high concentrations of the pollutants – the metal-based element selenium, in particular – present a “significant threat to the ecological integrity of these streams and rivers,” and urged both U.S. and Canada regulatory bodies to act with urgency.
Weeks after the report, a prominent conservation group listed the Elk as one the top three most endangered rivers in the province, in large part because selenium is being released at such a dangerous rate. According to Erin Sexton, one of the UM researchers who authored the report and continues to track and inform the issue, the toxic pollutants have been shown to impact fish species’ skeletal structure, reproductive abilities and liver and muscle tissues.
Moreover, 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, and the influx of selenium won’t abate even if the mining operations shut down production today, such is the scope of the mining footprint.
Instead, the company with the largest industrial footprint is proposing expansions at its five major operations while investing hundreds of millions of dollars in water-quality treatment facilities whose effectiveness remains unproven.
In response to the ballooning problem, a coalition of watchdog environmental groups, scientists, industry players, and a consortium of bi-national regulatory bodies have converged on the issue to pose a question that is in desperate need of an answer: What’s in the water?
From a diagrammatic perspective the question is seemingly straightforward. But in the reality of environmental regulatory standards it is exhaustingly complex, compounded by the bureaucratic nuances of regulating industrial pollution that crosses international boundaries and public and private lands. Meanwhile, science and data are still lacking, and the modeling required to develop a numeric protective water quality standard for selenium that is relevant to Lake Koocanusa and its particular suite of aquatic species is still being developed.
Indeed, developing such a standard is a long ways off, even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeks public comment on a newly proposed national standard, which Koocanusa already exceeds.
“Selenium is a big question mark up there in Lake Koocanusa,” said Eric Urban, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Quality Planning Bureau chief. “Right now Montana has a number on the books for regulating selenium that we feel is too high, but we don’t have the science and the data together to say that.”
“It’s a bit of a new frontier,” Urban said of the selenium standard. “Understanding how to actually implement it into our water monitoring and discharge permitting, that is new to Montana. It’s new to almost every state out there. It’s certainly new to the EPA. So we are a long ways out from adopting a new number for selenium.”
However, even if the EPA approved a new national standard tomorrow, the magic number would have no short-term effect in stanching the flow of selenium cascading from B.C. coal mines, through the Elk River Valley and into Montana.
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.
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.
The plan, the upshot of which was industry-driven, was approved last November, despite the protests of some stakeholders and committee members. But a new collaborative working group is slated to convene for the first time in late October, and critics of the previous technical advisory committee say it may offer a much-needed opportunity to begin real, meaningful work to address the plight of the Elk, the Kootenay and Lake Koocanusa.
“Last time, the coal company kind of assembled this technical advisory committee of experts, and we met every eight weeks with consultants that the company hired, but it didn’t really change anything,” said David Naftz, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wyoming and Montana Water Science Center, based in Helena. “It was toothless because the provincial and the Canadian regulatory authorities were never going to put any pressure on Teck. We had no support from the regulators in Canada so long as they met the selenium standard going into Koocanusa. So while this new working group might not be perfect, it sure beats getting this consulting B.S. shoved down our throat.”
Called the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group, the collaboration is meant to coordinate efforts between the U.S. and Canada, “solicit feedback from interested parties, and gauge the interest and availability of technical experts.” The first meeting will focus on selenium and how to proceed toward the development of selenium criteria for Lake Koocanusa.
The working group, which meets Oct. 29 at Riverstone Family Lodge in Eureka, is made up of a steering committee composed of representatives from the EPA, DEQ, the B.C. Ministry of the Environment and Environment Canada; a monitoring and research committee of representatives from organizations involved in monitoring and research on Lake Koocanusa, as well as experts in the field of selenium; and a stakeholder committee that includes “all persons with an interest in the lake.”
According to Michael Sokal, a biologist with the Ministry of Environment, the formation of the working group was prompted by “public concern about the impacts of upstream resource extraction and the impact on the lake itself.”
“The main objective is to protect the uses of Lake Koocanusa by determining water monitoring methods through science-based research,” Sokal said.
But as researchers try to divine a scientific model for determining a numeric water quality standard, industry officials are struggling to treat the water discharged from the coal mines.
All five Teck mines are open-pit, truck-and-shovel mines. As part of its 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 selenium and other contaminants from Line Creek.
However, the facility was taken off line last October because of a fish kill downstream from the plant. Teck officials have since attributed the cause of the fish kill to nitrite, in combination with high oxygen levels and “other constituents” in the treatment facility discharge water, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbohydrates that are “normally managed within the biological treatment process,” according to a Teck news release.
The Line Creek facility was the first to open as part of Teck’s $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 “aquatic constituents” were released as the result of a problem with the startup of the plant and a total of 74 dead fish were found in the area between Oct. 16 and Nov. 5. The facility was immediately shut down following the incident and will not be fully operational until at least this fall.
“We accept responsibility for this unfortunate occurrence and are now working to restart the facility and implement measures to prevent a reoccurrence,” said Robin Sheremeta, Vice President of Coal Operations. “Teck is committed to learning from this incident and implementing the measures necessary to maintain water quality and aquatic health in the Elk River watershed.”
The worsening situation in the Elk has prompted some environmental groups to call for the companies to discontinue mining operations, but researchers say the existing piles of accumulated mining spoil will continue leaching into the transboundary waterways regardless of whether the mines are active.
“If you stopped mining in the Elk tomorrow, it’s not that you’d experience decades of problems, it’s that you’d experience centuries of problems,” Naftz, the USGS researcher, said. “Whatever the solution is, it’s going to be much more significant than what people are admitting to right now.”
Sexton echoed his concerns, saying the most glaring issue with the industry-led plan to mitigate the problem to date – besides the apparent ineffectiveness of the treatment facility – is that it did not include Lake Koocanusa, which remains one of the biggest concerns of U.S. regulators and researchers as levels of selenium and other hazardous mining byproducts continue to spike.
If it’s too late to save the Elk, they say, then the broad-based research efforts and funding resources should be diverted to its downstream waterways.
“The Elk River is shot at this point. Its story has been told and it’s now a matter of remediation,” Sexton told the Flathead Basin Commission last November, 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.”
Jason Gildea, a hydrologist with the state’s EPA office, said new science has already prompted the agency to take a look at its current selenium standards, which allows water concentrations of 5 micrograms per liter, much higher than the Canadian standard of 2 micrograms per liter, which is again higher than the new proposed standard of 1.2 micrograms per liter.
But the selenium levels in Koocanusa are already bumping up against and exceeding those levels, while the selenium levels in the Elk River below the mines far exceed them, reaching 70 micrograms per liter in some places with a rough average of 45 micrograms per liter.
“It’s a crisis,” Sexton said.
Gildea said the EPA has been working on adopting new numbers for years.
“There has been a ton of new selenium science in the past 10 years spurred by all the coal mines and we just realized that it was a much bigger deal than we initially thought and that the numbers should be quite a bit lower than we initially thought,” he said.
Naftz said the scope of the problem in Koocanusa is even more disturbing because of the dearth of science-based research and the lack of traction in the public purview. In terms of headline-grabbing aquatic pollutants, selenium hasn’t been particularly sexy, he said, pointing to the alarmist public reaction to the rust-colored acid plume on Colorado’s Animas River as a recent analogy.
That spill sent 1 million gallons of wastewater from an abandoned mine into the Animas River, turning the river orange, and forcing the EPA to admit that it triggered the spill while investigating pollutants at the Gold King Mine, north of Silverton, Colorado.
“It’s so ironic that here is 3 million gallons of colored water spilled in a pristine stream that you can see, yet in Montana we have tens of thousands of pounds of invisible selenium coursing into Koocanusa and nobody bats an eye,” Naftz said.
The trouble with regulating selenium isn’t that it’s difficult to measure, but that its behavior varies wildly depending on whether it’s in a river or lake, freshwater or salt water, while its effects on fish and bird species also depends on a variety of factors.
That means researchers and regulators are faced not just with designing and adopting an aquatic standard for selenium, but designing that standard based on modeling that accounts for the entire ecological food web to determine how the aquatic levels of selenium translate to the bioaccumulation in the muscle and egg tissue of birds and eggs.
“This is a different approach to regulating water quality,” Urban, of the DEQ, said. “It’s more complicated than other water quality standards, and we are trying to accommodate all the varying interests of four government agencies.”
He added, “This is a story that will be ongoing for years to come.”