Scientists in Montana and B.C. Ramp Up Water Quality Monitoring

As Teck Coal reboots its water treatment plant, local researchers aim for more vigilant testing

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

A team of researchers from Montana and British Columbia has ramped up water-quality monitoring efforts on Lake Koocanusa due to the increasing threat of upstream mining contaminants rushing into Montana’s prized watersheds from Canadian coal mines.

The group of scientists and stakeholders hail from Wildsight, Sierra Club B.C., Headwaters Montana, and the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological State, which is performing the testing. Earlier this month, the group launched the first installment of its new monthly water sampling program on the sprawling reservoir that straddles the U.S.-Canada border, where concentrations of the mining contaminant selenium has been accumulating at alarming rates.

The goal of the expanded sampling campaign is to learn more about how the watershed behaves during different seasons when concentrations of contaminants like selenium, nitrate, cadmium, and sulphate are greater due to lower flows, as opposed to when concentrations are diluted during high flows in the spring.

“We understood that Teck was not sampling in the winter months due to safety concerns, so sampling has not occurred during those low-flow periods when concentrations are much higher,” Dave Hadden, executive director of Headwaters Montana, said. “We are sampling to test that. We suspect that the samples we take during low water will be higher in selenium and above the threshold, and since sampling has not occurred in those low-flow months we felt we should take the initiative to do so.”

For years, conservation groups and scientists on both sides of the border have been raising concerns about five coal mines owned and operated by Teck Resources in the Elk River Valley of British Columbia — concerns they say gained urgency when an experimental water treatment facility designed to stem the flow of selenium was found to be releasing an even more biologically toxic form of the heavy metal.

As Teck works to correct the situation — the company recently announced the treatment facility is back online — the mining continues, and proposed expansions to the global giant’s growing footprint has water-quality advocates on high alert.

The origins of Lake Koocanusa begin in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, where the Elk River carves a southerly path, rushing into the Kootenay River (the spelling changes to Kootenai when it crosses the international border) and converging in the sprawling reservoir basin.

Research shows that further up the watershed selenium concentrations become increasingly elevated.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, muscle-tissue samples from 10 species of fish in Lake Koocanusa collected in May of this year are consistent with sampling done in 2013, showing no increase during that five-year period.

The data is a departure from the results of fish-tissue samples collected in 2008 and again in 2013, which showed increasing trends in elevated selenium levels. During that five-year period, Trevor Selch, a water pollution biologist for FWP, tracked increases of selenium in muscle-tissue concentrations at rates of between 21 and 70 percent, a trend he described as “alarming.”

However, selenium concentrations measured at the mouth of the Elk River showed substantially higher levels relative to upstream values and were consistently above guidelines, according to the FWP’s report. Downstream from the mouth of the Elk River, selenium concentrations decreased to values closer to the guidelines, particularly as the distance from the Elk River increased.

Hadden said the results of the testing are not a victory for clean water, but rather further evidence of the need for more rigorous testing and monitoring.

“The report is just a once-in-five year ‘snapshot’ of the pollution problem and it shows that the pollution has not gone away, but is persisting,” Hadden said. “This is like saying your cancer is cured when your tumor persists but has not gone away either.”

Teck Coal is investing between $850-$950 million to construct water treatment facilities, but has been fined for violating provincial environmental rules.

According to Chris Stannell, Teck’s senior communications specialist, the company is conducting water-quality monitoring studies at 100 stations in the Elk Valley.

He said the recommissioning process of the West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Facility, located at Teck’s Line Creek Operations, began Aug. 30 and is expected to take approximately four months.

“Teck is committed to supporting the environmental and economic well-being of the Elk Valley,” Robin Sheremeta, senior vice president of Teck Coal, said. “We are committed to taking the steps necessary to achieve the objectives of the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, including major investments in ongoing research, monitoring, and water treatment facilities such as the West Line Creek facility.”

But earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns with its regulatory counterparts to the north after Teck shut down the facility, expressing misgivings about the proposal to take it offline.

Hadden said his misgivings center on the unproven effectiveness of the water treatment technology, which has already faced numerous stumbling blocks.

“The bottom line is we don’t know if this technology works, and so far we’ve seen that the opposite is true,” Hadden said.

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