A new national regulatory standard for a pollutant called selenium sets forth criteria for how to manage aquatic life exposed to a mining contaminant currently spilling from the upstream waterways of British Columbia into Lake Koocanusa, where in some cases it already exceeds the threshold.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new criteria on selenium limits in freshwater sources revises a 17-year-old standard, and gives individual states the option of either adopting the recommendations or drafting their own rules. EPA’s recommended criteria do not impose legally binding requirements.
On Lake Koocanusa, scientists and researchers from a multitude of agencies are in the process of developing a site-specific plan as they continue to monitor the influx of selenium leaching out of upstream Canadian coal mines located on the Elk River, which rushes into the Kootenay River and converges in Lake Koocanusa.
Selenium is a naturally occurring element in sedimentary rocks and coal and can be toxic to fish at elevated levels, which are exacerbated by mining operations and the accumulation of waste rock, according to the EPA.
Jason Gildea, a hydrologist with the state’s EPA office, said new science gathered through the years prompted the agency to revise its old selenium standards, which allowed 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 standard of 1.5 micrograms per liter.
“We realized based on new findings and new selenium research that the old levels were too high,” Gildea said.
But the selenium levels in Koocanusa are already bumping up against and exceeding the new levels, while the selenium levels in the Elk River directly below the mines far exceed them, reaching 70 micrograms per liter in some places with a rough average of 45 micrograms per liter.
Based on muscle-tissue samples collected between 2008 and 2013 from seven species of fish in Lake Koocanusa, researchers have shown increasing trends in elevated selenium levels; moreover, the inrush of selenium won’t abate even if the mining operations shut down production, such is the scope of the footprint and the size of waste-rock piles.
“We have had samples that exceed the new criteria, and there are others that are approaching that value,” said Trevor Selch, a water pollution biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks who is conducting muscle-tissue sampling on Lake Koocanusa. “But bumping up against that number doesn’t necessarily present an immediate point of concern for the fish species.”
However, given that in a five-year period between 2008 and 2013 Selch tracked increases of selenium in muscle-tissue concentrations at rates of between 21 and 70 percent, “that is pretty alarming.”
“If we continue on that kind of trajectory, that is pretty serious,” he said. “Then we would definitely be approaching a point of concern for the species.”
Research shows that toxic pollutants like selenium can impact fish species’ skeletal structure, reproductive abilities and liver and muscle tissues.
Ric Hauer, a University of Montana professor of limnology, has been studying the transboundary water system for four decades, and said the issues brewing on the Elk River have the potential to be “a multi-millennial problem.”
“There is a whole-scale, ecosystem-level degradation taking place on the Elk River and this entire watershed is being poisoned by selenium,” he said. “It will persist for tens of generations. This is not something that 50 years from now we can simply clean up and wipe our hands from.”
There are currently five coal mines in the Elk River Valley causing toxic pollution, all of which have launched expansion proposals that are in the exploration, permitting or development stage. Operated by Teck Resources 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 May, the British Columbia Auditor General released a two-year 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.
Bellringer wrote that if the B.C. Ministry of Environment can’t properly enforce selenium regulations, it risks violating a 1909 treaty between the United States and Canada forbidding pollution of transboundary water bodies. She stated the ministry’s planned water treatment plants put an onus on the provincial government “to monitor these facilities in perpetuity and ensure that they are maintained” at taxpayers’ expense.
In 2013, the B.C. government ordered Teck 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 composed 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.
All five Teck mines are open-pit, truck-and-shovel mines. As part of its water quality plan, Teck committed to opening six water treatment plants, including a $120 million treatment plant called the West Line Creek Water Treatment Facility, to remove selenium and other contaminants from Line Creek.
But Hauer was skeptical that a company like Teck can commit to the kind of long-term treatment necessary to repair a century-long legacy of mining damage on the Elk.
“This will go on for thousands of years, not the estimated 50-year life expectancy of the mines,” Hauer said. “So what happens when the mines close? How can they continue a water treatment process costing cost hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain? There is not a company on the planet that can sustain something like that.”
“This will continue to bleed and bleed until the bleeding is stopped,” Hauer continued. “Right now the idea is to put a bandage over it and try to reduce the amount of bleeding. But as soon as you rip the bandage off and don’t maintain it anymore, then the bleeding is just going to continue.”
Eric Urban, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Quality Planning Bureau chief, said the state agency is collaborating with numerous regulatory agencies, stakeholders and researchers to develop a numeric protective water quality standard for selenium that is specific to Lake Koocanusa and its particular suite of aquatic species.
The trouble with regulating selenium isn’t that it’s difficult to measure, he said, but that its behavior varies wildly depending on whether it’s in a river or lake, while its effects on fish and bird species also depend on a variety of factors.
Under the new EPA rule, 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 process involves cutting-edge science with regard to water quality criteria, so I would expect every state out there to take a very careful look at this,” Urban said. “Fortunately, we have solicited the best experts in the nation to work on this.”
According to the EPA, the new standards reflect “the latest scientific information” indicating that selenium toxicity is primarily based on fish and other aquatic life consuming tainted food rather than on the metallic compound dissolving in the water.
The agency recommended that states include four elements in their standards but give priority to fish tissue concentrations over water requirements. The 1999 criteria was only water-based.
The national criteria are based on the most sensitive species to selenium pollution, in this case white sturgeon.
The new standards drew mixed responses from industry and environmental groups.
The National Mining Association said it supported EPA’s “emphasis on a fish tissue standard, since fish after all are the point of the standards in the first place.”
But the group is “troubled” by the agency’s new water guidelines, which could preclude companies from mining in certain areas, particularly ones where natural selenium levels are elevated.
The EPA guidelines do not go as far as environmental groups wanted.
The Center for Biological Diversity criticized the new water restrictions as not stringent enough. It accused EPA of relying on 30-year-old guidelines and said the agency had proposed tighter limits in 2010.
“These selenium standards are a step backward for water quality and little more than a green light for industry to keep polluting our rivers and streams,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the center.
The Sierra Club criticized EPA for leaving standards up to state regulators “who have already established that they will not miss an opportunity to aid their polluter friends in the mining industry.”
Hauer, the UM professor, is part of the research and monitoring group responsible for informing and coordinating efforts between agencies in the U.S. and Canada as they grapple with adopting the new standard.
The group includes representatives from the EPA, DEQ, FWP, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, University of Montana, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Ktunaxa Nation of B.C., as well as Canada’s Ministry of Environment.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are pushing the government to refer the impaired watershed surrounding Lake Koocanusa to the International Joint Commission.
In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry sent earlier this year, CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley requested that the IJC establish an International Watershed Board to examine and report on the existing water quality in the Elk and Kootenai River watersheds, with equal representation across the international boundary from tribes, first nations, agencies, and stakeholders.
The tribes made the request for bi-national oversight pursuant to the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which established the IJC to help prevent and resolve disputes about the use and quality of transboundary water resources.
Rich Janssen, director of CSKT’s Natural Resources Department, said the CSKT council joined with the Ktunaxa National Council and the Council of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho in making the request.
“Our concern is that the risk to fish and wildlife, to cultural resources and to species important to human health is not being looked after,” Janssen said.