News & Features

Montana Border Towns Unify in Support of Stronger Water Quality Monitoring

Mayors and city councils of communities whose waterways are impacted by B.C. mining contaminants press governor for support

The continuous flow of hazardous contaminants from British Columbia’s Elk Valley into Montana’s prized watersheds has prompted communities along the Kootenai River in northwest Montana to speak up, urging state and congressional leaders to monitor and protect their imperiled natural resources

In three separate letters to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, community leaders in Libby, Troy and Eureka — all of which sit along the blue-ribbon Kootenai River and not far from the sprawling transboundary Lake Koocanusa — say their economies depend on the water quality of rivers and lakes that are increasingly compromised by upstream coalmines, where pollutants are leaching downstream into aquatic systems that support diverse wildlife species and a range of recreational interests.

“As you know, the City of Troy sits alongside the Kootenai River. The river and the surrounding public lands form our economic foundation. We write you today to do all you can to protect the Kootenai River from water pollution from British Columbia’s coalmines in the upper Elk River Valley, a major tributary of the Kootenai,” according to one letter from Troy Mayor Dallas Carr, as well as members of its city council.

The thrust of all three letters is aimed at allocating funds to establish better long-term water quality monitoring throughout the watershed and adopt a strict water quality standard for a pollutant called selenium, a mineral that is toxic at elevated levels.

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.

The end goal is to establish regulatory standard for selenium in the northwest Montana watershed, where concentrations already exceed the threshold identified in the national regulatory standards set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Lake Koocanusa is an important natural resource for our residents and visitors for fishing, boating and recreating,” according to the letter from Eureka Mayor LeeAnn Schermerhorn. “We feel it is important to support the efforts to obtain funding to monitor the levels in the lake and the research of the effects selenium may have on our water system and area.”

The letter continues: “We also support efforts to make this process open and transparent to the public at all levels. Regular and informative meetings are a necessary step in this process. We understand the last public meeting in our area was held in 2016.”

According to Marissa Perry, a spokesperson for Bullock, the governor’s office has received the letters and supports an open and transparent process.

The letters mark the latest step to address a groundswell of concern surrounding the growing problem of pollution from upstream mines that has been mounting for years.

In 2015, a collaborative research and monitoring group called the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group (LKMRWG) was developed with the task of determining how to manage the effects of the mining contaminants and coordinating efforts between agencies in the U.S. and Canada as they grapple with adopting a new standard for selenium.

The LKMRWG is targeting 2020 to deliver recommendations for a revised selenium target to the LKMRWG Steering Committee.

In another recent letter addressed to Bullock, as well as Gov. Butch Otter, R-Idaho, and B.C.’s Environmental Minister George Heyman, leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) formally requested that the state and provincial governments adopt a more stringent standard governing selenium, joining with the Ktunaxa Nation Council and the Council of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho in making the request.

The tribes asked for a selenium criteria of 1.5 micrograms per liter (ug/L) until the site-specific standard is determined, an objective that aligns with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard. Tribal leaders say the state has delayed adopting a standard; meanwhile, the mines continue discharging waste into the transboundary states.

“This concentration is consistent with the monthly average exposure water quality criteria developed by [EPA in 2016],” the letter states.

In Montana, the source of the pollution can be traced back to coal mines owned and operated by Teck Resources Ltd, which runs five open-pit, truck-and-shovel mines, with plans for expanding their footprints.

“To support achieving this objective/criteria in the reservoir, we are further recommending to the Province of British Columbia that Teck be required to initiate mitigation planning and implementation to reduce further loading of selenium into Koocanusa Reservoir in order to achieve the interim objective and prevent further degradation of the aquatic environment,” the letter states.

Teck officials say the company is conducting water-quality monitoring at 100 stations in the Elk Valley, and is “committed to taking the steps necessary to achieve the objectives of the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan (EVWQP) and stabilizing and reducing selenium levels in the Elk River watershed and Koocanusa reservoir.”

Another recent development involved a bipartisan slate of eight senators from all four states bordering British Columbia, including Montana, who came together to write a letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan, pressing him to recognize the urgency of safeguarding U.S. waters from mining pollutants

The unprecedented letter also drew attention to B.C.’s regulatory shortcomings surrounding natural resources shared by the neighboring nations.

“While we appreciate Canada’s engagement to date, we remain concerned about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary rivers that originate in B.C. and flow into our four U.S. states,” the letter states.

“As you know, Alaska, Washington, Idaho, and Montana have tremendous natural resources that need to be protected against impacts from B.C. hardrock and coal mining activities near the headwaters of shared rivers, many of which support environmentally and economically significant salmon populations,” it adds.

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.