As British Columbia’s downstream neighbor, Montana has reason to be concerned about toxic pollutants spilling across the international border and into the state’s prized watersheds, which support fish and wildlife, as well as a vibrant economy.
A growing body of evidence shows those fears are well founded, particularly as researchers report alarming concentrations of a mining contaminant called selenium, which leaches from piles of waste created by coal mines along B.C.’s Elk River and is accumulating in a shared watershed straddling the U.S.-Canada boundary — Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River.
On Monday, Nov. 27, in an unprecedented show of state-and-federal solidarity on the issue, Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, both Montana Democrats, called upon U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to ramp up pressure on the Canadian government in order to address legacy impacts of transboundary pollution in the Kootenai River system.
The letter signed by Bullock and Tester requests a stronger framework to protect transboundary resources, and asks Tillerson to help the state and province adopt a more stringent, bilateral water quality standard to protect Montana’s water quality needs.
“We are encouraging the U.S. State Department to address the larger bilateral concerns within the Kootenai River watershed, in order to protect Montana’s water and to ensure it remains clean for future generations,” the letter states.
“It is our belief that from a human health and aquatic life perspective, Lake Koocanusa is the most sensitive point in the Kootenai watershed affected by selenium,” the letter continues. “A strong bilateral water quality standard, developed with British Columbia, is the first step in communicating and protecting Montana’s water quality needs.”
The need for more stringent water quality standards has gained urgency in recent weeks as Teck Coal, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates five steelmaking coal mines just across the border from Montana, announced plans to shut down its active water quality treatment facility on a tributary of the Elk River called Line Creek.
The experimental $120 million water treatment facility was designed to stem the flow of selenium, but it was determined earlier this year to be releasing an even more biologically toxic form of the contaminant.
Constructed to remove selenium and nitrate from discharge water as part of Teck’s pledge to implement the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, which is intended to stabilize and reverse the increasing trend of selenium and other substances, the effectiveness of the treatment technology remains unproven.
The plant’s apparent failure raises concerns about whether treating massive volumes of contaminated wastewater is possible.
Meanwhile, Teck’s proposal to bypass the plant for up to 10 months means an additional 500 kilograms of selenium would be loaded into the water system, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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 remedy.
But even with the plant offline during the pilot program’s proposed fix, the uptick in selenium loading spells trouble for downstream waters, he said.
“Any increase in loading will be detectable downstream in terms of uptake into the flora and fauna, and so any additional loading in a system that has already surpassed risk benchmarks is not a good thing,” Skorupa said. “It’s something that you would hope to avoid if you could. All forms of selenium are environmentally dangerous — it’s just a matter of degree.”
In a statement, a Teck spokesman said the company has rolled out a successful pilot program and plans to debut its new system, which uses an advanced oxidization process, in the summer of 2018. During its implementation, the water treatment facility will be taken offline.
“We will be working closely with government to ensure the shutdown proceeds in accordance with necessary authorizations and in a manner that ensures the continued safety of people and the environment,” according to Chris Stannell, Teck’s senior communications specialist.
According to Canada’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, Teck’s proposal to shut down the water treatment facility remains under review.
“Teck has applied to the Ministry to shut down its water treatment plant at Line Creek as it has been found to be releasing selenite which could be harmful to fish,” according to a statement.
A spokesperson said the ministry will continue to work with Teck and local tribes, namely the Ktunaxa Nation Council, “to ensure that a robust monitoring program is in place for the Elk River watershed to provide data on the state of the aquatic ecosystem.”
Leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, as well as the Ktunaxa Nation of B.C. and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, have been pushing the governments of both countries to form a bi-national oversight group to streamline discussions between the federal regulatory bodies.
“The ministry will continue to monitor this situation,” according to the statement from Canada’s Ministry of Environment.
Based on data compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey and Montana Department of Environmental Quality, annual selenium loads entering Lake Koocanusa have increased from 2,600 kilograms in 1992 to more than 13,000 kg in 2012, representing more than a fivefold increase over the course of 20 years.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, muscle-tissue samples from seven species of fish in Lake Koocanusa collected in 2008 and again in 2013 show 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 leaching into the waterways.
During the five-year period between 2008 and 2013, FWP biologists tracked increases of selenium in muscle-tissue concentrations at rates of between 21 and 70 percent, a trend they described as alarming.
Another resource-rich state that shares a border with B.C. also asked Tillerson to raise concerns with the Canadian government regarding the impacts of B.C. mining on waters that flow across the border, only the letter from Alaska’s delegation was signed entirely by Republican lawmakers, including the governor.
Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation also asked Tillerson to determine if the concerns should be brought to a special international commission, which becomes involved when asked to do so by the national governments.
In Montana, conservation groups said bipartisan agreement over the pressing nature of transboundary pollution and the need for a higher standard is encouraging, and praised Bullock for stepping up to the plate on behalf of Montana, noting that Tester has long been a champion of deeper scrutiny into B.C.’s responsibilities.
“I think in today’s world seeing a shared bipartisan message like this is a pretty tremendous show of unity and an indication that things are not currently working in B.C.,” Michael Jamison, of the National Parks Conservation Association, said. “It is important to note that these are Republican representatives from Alaska and members of a Democratic team in Montana, and they are asking for the same environmental relief. Clearly a problem exists upstream for both states, and I think there is a greater value now that this is a bipartisan message.”
David Brooks, executive director of Montana’s chapter of Trout Unlimited, said joint efforts by both the state and federal government will be a key development moving forward.
“I think it’s a great first step to have all levels of our state agencies and the governor’s office trying to get that process moving forward,” Brooks said. “I am glad to see Governor Bullock doing this, and I am especially glad to see him doing it in conjunction with Senator Tester. For Montana, working with federal partners is absolutely critical on this moving forward.”