Scientists: State’s Plan to Assess Upstream Mining Impacts to Koocanusa ‘Fatally Flawed’

Lake Koocanusa research and monitoring group urges ‘holistic’ approach to threatened watershed

By Tristan Scott
Teck Coal's Elkview operation near Sparwood, British Columbia. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Members of a research and monitoring group charged with determining how to manage the effects of toxic mining contaminants spilling from the upstream waterways of British Columbia into Lake Koocanusa say the state of Montana’s scope is too narrow and its methods flawed.

The collaborative group is responsible for informing and coordinating efforts between agencies in the U.S. and Canada as they grapple with adopting a new standard for a mining byproduct called selenium. At its inaugural meeting on Oct. 29 in Eureka, the group’s steering committee tapped the technical expertise of scientists from a multitude of regulatory and academic backgrounds, who unanimously urged a more holistic approach to the problem, pushing back against the strategy set forth by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The scientists presented and discussed data that is raising grave concerns about the future of Lake Koocanusa, a sprawling reservoir basin that straddles the U.S.-Canada border and collects water from the upstream rivers of B.C., where hazardous pollutants like selenium are leaching out of coal mines and crossing the international border at an alarming rate.

The growing body of research shows that concentrations of the contaminants are spiking and that the problem is not confined to Lake Koocanusa or limited to selenium; rather, contaminants are radiating throughout the watershed, with elevated concentrations turning up in a variety of fish species, as well as in water and sediment samples.

Whether future research and monitoring efforts should move beyond the reservoir and incorporate the entire watershed and contaminants other than selenium was a point of contention between the researchers and DEQ officials.

“It’s not a reservoir problem, it’s a whole ecosystem problem,” University of Montana professor and researcher Ric Hauer said.

The meeting marked the first time the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group assembled, and revealed sharp differences in opinion between scientists and regulatory officials with the DEQ, which is charged with the difficult task of adopting a numeric standard to regulate selenium in Lake Koocanusa.

Still, representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Army Corps of Engineers, the University of Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Ktunaxa Nation of B.C., overwhelmingly agreed that the collaborative should take an ecosystem-wide approach rather than narrow its sights on Koocanusa and selenium, as the DEQ and Canada’s Ministry of Environment have proposed.

Hauer and his research colleague, Erin Sexton, who represented the CSKT at the meeting, are the authors of a 2013 study that revealed how pollutants leaching into the heavily mined Elk River drainage in southeastern B.C. have reached alarming levels, particularly as selenium threatens critical fish habitat in Canada and downstream in Montana. The researchers said the findings presented “significant threat to the ecological integrity of these streams and rivers,” and urged both U.S. and Canada regulatory bodies to act with urgency.

But additional studies by the Army Corps of Engineers and FWP have revealed elevated concentrations of other contaminants from the mine, particularly nitrogen and sulphate, which could permanently alter the watershed. As research and management efforts move forward, Hauer and Sexton argue, the science should examine the entire connected watershed and the full range of mining contaminants, rather than focus on Lake Koocanusa and selenium as exclusive or isolated.

Moreover, the time to act is now, they say.

“The limitation that is being proposed, this singularity that we are only going to look at selenium and we are only going to look at the reservoir, is fundamentally and fatally flawed,” Hauer said. “By doing that they (the DEQ) are not serving the environment well and they are definitely not serving Montana well.”

The frustration that boiled up at the meeting, and the grim picture that the researchers painted, stood out in contrast to the optimism DEQ officials expressed about the future of Koocanusa and their confidence that the plan would be comprehensive.

“I am very optimistic that we will have an engaged process and that we won’t be leaving out any paths,” Eric Urban, DEQ Water Quality Planning Bureau chief, said.

Terri Mavencamp, of the DEQ, and Michael Sokal, a biologist with the Ministry of Environment, said they would serve as a conduit for relaying the group’s concerns to a steering committee, which is composed of the EPA, DEQ, B.C. Ministry of the Environment, and Environment Canada.

Julie Dalsoglio, of the EPA, said communication would be key as her agency seeks public comment on a newly proposed national standard for selenium, which Koocanusa already exceeds.

Dalsoglio also echoed the other scientists in calling for a holistic, watershed-scale assessment.

“We have done these things frequently enough around the globe to know that if you don’t examine it on that spatial scale you will arrive at answers that are inadequate to inform what you are really driving at,” she said.

DEQ officials acknowledge the connectivity of the watershed and the presence of mining contaminants both upstream from and below Lake Koocanusa, but divining a numeric standard for selenium is no easy task, and the narrow parameters help focus the process.

Also present at the meeting were representatives of Teck Coal Limited, which owns and operates the coal mines responsible for the contamination. Teck is proposing expansions at its five major operations in southeastern British Columbia while investing hundreds of millions of dollars in water-quality treatment facilities.

Hauer and others were dismayed by the amount of influence that Teck appeared to have on the collaborative process versus that of their own science and data. Hauer said if the job is to be done right, it should be comprehensive and without industry oversight or influence.

“The DEQ should be primarily be in the business of protecting the state of Montana,” Hauer said.

Calling the situation a “crisis,” Hauer noted that even if Teck halted all mining operations immediately, the watershed would continue to experience problems related to mining byproducts like selenium for decades, if not centuries, and he encouraged the researchers and regulators to address the problem head-on immediately.

“If this is not resolved properly now, my great grand children and your grand children will still be dealing with this,” he told the working group. “So let’s do this right while we still have the opportunity, across the entire sequence of the watershed and the entire food web. Don’t let the political system drive the science. Let the science drive the political system.”

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