Budget Bill Mandates Scrutiny of Endangered Kootenai Watershed

Provision requires EPA to work with federal and local partners to reduce harmful mining waste

By Tristan Scott
Mining operations along the Elk River near Sparwood, B.C. Beacon File Photo

Stemming the flow of dangerous mining contaminants spilling from Canada into the Kootenai River watershed was listed as a priority in the 2,232-page government-spending bill signed by President Donald Trump, marking a hard-won victory for advocates of the endangered river and the communities it supports.

Inclusion of the beleaguered river system in the massive spending bill is another in a recent series of significant steps toward tackling a decade-long problem brewing in the transboundary Kootenai River watershed, where toxic contaminants leaching from upstream Canadian coal mines in the Elk River Valley of British Columbia continue to threaten Montana’s prized aquatic ecosystems.

Spearheading the latest charge to bring attention to the Kootenai is U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who helped draft the annual budget bill as a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and who for years has been mounting pressure on the U.S. and B.C. governments to develop a bilateral water quality standard for mining contaminants, including selenium, sulfates and nitrates.

“Clean water is critically important to our health, our environment and our economy. That’s why I’ve been working hard to address contamination in the Kootenai watershed,” Tester said. “This provision is a big step forward, getting federal agencies to engage with folks on the ground and come up with a concrete path forward.”

Currently, regulatory agencies in the U.S. and B.C., as well as Montana, employ different standards for monitoring a pollutant called selenium, a naturally occurring element in sedimentary rocks and coal that can be toxic to fish at elevated levels.

To address those gaps and limitations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environment Canada, the British Columbia Ministry of Environment, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality are working on a memorandum of understanding to jointly study Lake Koocanusa, the sprawling reservoir that straddles the international boundary, and make recommendations for site-specific selenium water quality criteria.

The need for more stringent, unified water quality standards has been gaining urgency as Teck Coal, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates five steelmaking coal mines on the Elk River just across the border from Montana, lays plans to expand its footprint while investing hundreds of millions of dollars in unproven water quality treatment technology.

Last November, Tester, along with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, pressed former U.S. State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson to uphold the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, which obligates both countries to avoid polluting shared waters that would cause harm in either country.  In his response in January, Tillerson promised to initiate a process with his Canadian counterparts to address pollution from British Columbia coal mines and their impacts to Montana.

The State Department and Global Affairs Canada will discuss the findings of the review beginning April 23 at a biannual meeting in Washington, D.C. The discussion will include the shortcomings of a 2010 memorandum of understanding (MOU) between British Columbia and Montana regarding cooperation on environmental protection, climate action and energy. While significant, the MOU is nonbinding and unfunded.

The State Department’s promise to address gaps, limitations and disparities between the two countries’ monitoring and regulatory standards is a promising step toward smoothing out the differences, according to Dave Hadden, executive director of Headwaters Montana, one of the groups demanding that regulatory agencies in British Columbia follow international water quality standards before approving new coal mines that could jeopardize downstream waters.

Hadden said inclusion of the Kootenai in Congress’ omnibus spending bill opens up a significant new channel and could help the communities who depend on the Kootenai River tap into federal assistance.

“This appropriations language represents the first significant legislative step in what could be federal assistance to help Montana and Lincoln County address this issue,” he said.

Researchers studying Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, which form the watershed straddling the U.S.-Canada boundary, report alarming concentrations of the mining contaminant selenium, which leaches from piles of waste created by coal mines along B.C.’s Elk River and is accumulating in the shared watershed downstream.

Next month, scientists with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will complete a full-scale, five-year assessment of seven fish species in Lake Koocanusa, which will help determine the state’s selenium standard for the reservoir.

Crews collected muscle-tissue samples from Koocanusa’s fish species in 2008 and again in 2013, and the data shows 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.

In the five-year period between 2008 and 2013, FWP’s Trevor Selch, a water pollution biologist, tracked increases of selenium in muscle-tissue concentrations at rates of between 21 and 70 percent. If the results of the third assessment show another leap in selenium levels, Selch said the data would serve as telling evidence of an alarming trajectory.

“To me that is going to be the real test,” he said.

Scientists, tribes and conservation organizations who have worked to draw attention to the perilous situation on the Kootenai hailed Tester’s response as a major step forward in efforts to ensure an effective plan is put in place.

“If ever there was a town that didn’t need mining pollution aimed at it, well it’s got to be Libby, Montana. But even with all the history there, we’ve had one heck of a time getting this problem the attention it deserves,” Michael Jamison, of the National Park Conservation Association’s Glacier Field Office, said, referring to the legacy of asbestos poisoning that plagued Libby as the result of a vermiculite mine. “Honestly, if it hadn’t been for Sen. Tester, I’m not sure anybody would be listening. He secured the language in the omnibus bill. He worked directly with the State Department to put this issue on the international radar, and he partnered with Gov. Bullock to help defend Montana’s interests on the international stage. This kind of legislative language doesn’t happen by accident, and Sen. Tester has been there from day one on behalf of Montana’s transboundary waters, first in the North Fork and now in the Kootenai.”

Meanwhile, the Kootenai Valley chapter of Montana Trout Unlimited delivered a letter to the Lincoln County Commission requesting it pass a resolution in support of the State Department’s efforts to establish a legally binding agreement with the Canadian federal government that would address contamination concerns.

Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck said April 13 the commission has received the letter and draft resolution and the Lincoln County Attorney’s Office is currently reviewing it.

Tim Linehan, owner of Linehan Outfitting Company since 1992 and a member of Trout Unlimited, said he’s been observing the effects of mining contamination for more than a decade, first on the Elk River and more recently on the Kootenai, the lifeblood of his business.

“Even many as 15 years ago on the Elk, we caught and handled native westslope slope cutthroat trout with gill-plate deformities,” Linehan said. “And then just last year we started seeing the same thing on the Kootenai. I saw it and my colleagues and clients saw it, and that is disturbing.”

Leading researchers on selenium contamination in aquatic ecosystems show that gill-plate and spinal deformities can occur when species are exposed to elevated levels of heavy metals.

Linehan said his observations, while anecdotal, propelled him into action.

“Before that I was just kind of keeping an eye on this in B.C., which is a monster issue, but we were talking about the source of all this coming from another country and that’s a whole other ball of wax,” Linehan said. “But when I saw affected fish on the Kootenai side, on my river, there was that gulp-gulp moment. This is a darn serious situation, and it could impact Lincoln County, jobs, tourism, and economic development to a substantial degree, and not just specifically surrounding the outfitting industry.”

The omnibus bill calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to work with federal and local partners to begin addressing contaminants in the Kootenai using the resources allocated in the fiscal year 2018 budget. EPA must then report on its progress to Congress within 180 days of its enactment on March 23.

According to Tester’s staff, the provision provides a directive and a mechanism to hold the EPA accountable and ensure the agency follows through.

Despite the hostile congressional environment, Jamison, of the NPCA, said water and the health of an ecosystem that supports a community like Libby should unite rather than divide.

“Water quality is one of the few truly bipartisan issues that brings us all together. Everyone agrees that a Canadian coal company should not be allowed to use Montana’s rivers and reservoirs as a settling pond,” Jamison said. “This isn’t just about clean water or fish and wildlife. This is about jobs and economics. Montana can’t open any mines, can’t build any industry, when Canada has already used up the entire water pollution allotment. Sen. Tester’s omnibus language protects all of Montana’s primary interests, both economic and ecologic, and it protects both our anglers and our miners.”

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