Failure of Water Treatment Plant at B.C. Coal Mine Raises Downstream Concerns

Contaminants continue to flow south into Northwest Montana’s world-class watersheds at alarming rates, scientists say

By Tristan Scott
Lake Koocanusa on Sept. 23, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

As British Columbia’s downstream neighbor, Montana has long been concerned about mining pollution spilling across the international border and into its world-class watersheds — fears that a growing body of research and evidence confirms are well founded.

Most recently, conservation groups and scientists on both sides of the border have renewed their calls for Teck Resources to halt new coal mines in the Elk River Valley, a step they say gained urgency when an experimental water treatment facility designed to stem the flow of a mining contaminant called selenium was taken offline because it was releasing an even more biologically toxic form of the heavy metal.

The trouble brewing in the Elk River is equally worrisome for Montana, where the upstream waterways of British Columbia flow into two shared bodies of water straddling the international boundary — Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River.

A spokesperson for Teck, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates five steelmaking coal mines just across the border from Montana, acknowledged the problem at the company’s water treatment plant and said efforts are underway to correct it.

“We are working to address a challenge related to selenium compounds at our West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Facility,” according to a statement. “We have a dedicated team working on this issue and have identified a corrective option that is now undergoing pilot-scale testing at the facility. We are also conducting ongoing, extensive aquatic monitoring. It’s not believed that this selenium compound issues poses any immediate risk to aquatic or human health.”

Meanwhile, the mining operations continue, even as scientists and researchers from a multitude of agencies work to develop a site-specific plan for protecting Lake Koocanusa, where they continue to monitor the influx of selenium leaching out of the upstream coal mines.

The $120 million West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Facility, located at Teck’s Line Creek Operations along the Elk River near Sparwood, was constructed to remove selenium and nitrate from discharge water 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 effectiveness of the experimental treatment technology remains unproven, and the plant’s apparent failure raises concerns about whether treating massive volumes of contaminated wastewater is possible.

“Unfortunately, it has proved an unsuccessful treatment option,” said Erin Sexton, a University of Montana researcher who was among the first to uncover evidence of high concentrations of the mining pollutants in fish species.

The West Line Creek facility was first taken offline in 2014 after a fish kill resulted in the death of 74 westslope cutthroat trout, prompting environmental charges against Teck. Last year, data collected by the company revealed that its water treatment facility was inadvertently reducing the chemical compound selenate to selenite, converting the material into a more biologically aggressive chemical byproduct.

“The West Line Creek facility is actually making matters worse,” Sexton said. “It is releasing a more bioavailable form of selenium that is up to 100 times more likely to bioaccumulate in the aquatic environment.”

Construction of a second treatment facility on the nearby Fording River is on hold due to the failures at Line Creek.

Joseph Skorupa, a veteran selenium expert at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the transformation of selenium’s chemical form selenate to selenite is troubling, and could be expensive to fix.

“They are actually increasing the toxic potency,” Skorupa said. “This is a very important issue that could very easily defeat a system. It neutralizes all of the benefits and actually puts the company in a worse position than if they didn’t treat the water at all. You would be better off not even running the water through the treatment facility.”

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 guidelines by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Ryland Nelson, of Wildsight Conservation, a group that has been critical of the mining activities and degradation of water quality, said the B.C. government is acting “irresponsibly” by continuing to issue permits to Teck and other mining companies.

“I know Teck is working to address the problem, but it remains to be seen whether it will work,” Nelson said. “Right now it’s business as usual with Teck as well as the B.C. government, which is entertaining new mine proposals inside and outside of the Elk Valley. Now is not the time to be considering new expansions or new mines. We have a serious selenium problem and we need to get this situation under control.”

Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association said the B.C. government is shirking its duties by permitting new mines and allowing mine expansions to move forward without any assurances that the treatment technology on which the permits are contingent actually works.

“We have pollutants actively crossing the border that exceed U.S. standards and we have a failed treatment process,” Jamison said. “Despite that, we have massive mines that were approved on the promise that the water treatment technology was sufficient, when clearly it’s not.”

In a written statement from British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment, the agency tasked with protecting the province’s air and water, a spokesperson said the selenium levels align with the government’s permitting requirements.

“Teck’s West Line Creek water treatment plant is removing the desired amount of selenium; however, Teck is still working to address the form of selenium at the end of the process,” according to the statement.

The statement continues: “For new projects, treatment systems are based on use of known and proven technologies or the testing and refinement of newer technologies with contingency plans prior to operation of the site.”

Last year, 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.

Also last year, leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes 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.

The coalition of tribes recently wrote separate letters to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Hyland, as well as to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak, urging the state and federal officials to address the legacy impacts in the Elk and Kootenai river watersheds and requesting a stronger framework to protect transboundary resources.

The letter raises the failure at the Line Creek facility and the elevated levels of selenium concentration in the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa as “matters of urgent concern.”

Scientists and researchers from a multitude of agencies are in the process of developing a site-specific plan for Lake Koocanusa as they continue to monitor the influx of selenium and other contaminants from the upstream coal mines. The Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group is charged with determining how to manage the effects of toxic mining contaminants.

The group includes 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, and the University of Montana.

The tribes declined to participate in the working group because they felt the scope is too limited, focusing on Lake Koocanusa rather than the entire watershed.

Asked whether Montana is concerned about the failure at the Line Creek treatment plant, a spokesperson with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said the agency did not have any specific information on Teck’s mining operations or the company’s water treatment plant operations.

The most recent selenium concentrations from April at the international border on Lake Koocanusa are 1.3 to 1.4 micrograms per liter, according to DEQ. Those concentrations comply with, or do not exceed, EPA recommended standards not yet adopted by Montana.