In the Elk Valley, Teck says it has a solution to the selenium contamination
With hundreds of years worth of reserves, coal company says it plans on mining in the Elk River Valley for decades to come
By JUSTIN FRANZ
SPARWOOD, British Columbia — Driving on British Columbia Highway 3 through the Elk River Valley, the evidence of the area’s historic connection to the coal industry is displayed everywhere.
Sprinkled throughout the communities of Fernie and Sparwood are tiny wooden mine carts full of coal, relics that harken back to an era when men had to venture underground to harvest the earth’s bounty one cartload at a time. The largest piece of evidence can be found parked right next to the Sparwood visitor center: Titan, a 350-ton dump truck that for a quarter century held the title as the world’s biggest truck. The enormous green vehicle looks like an oversized Tonka and arrived in the Elk Valley in the 1970s — not long after strip-mining became the primary means of harvesting black gold.
Evidence of the community’s reliance on coal today can also easily be spotted from the highway. Sparwood is dotted with businesses that support the mining industry, from heavy machinery repair shops to tire stores. On a hillside overlooking the town, a steam-belching processing plant looms large. And mile-long coal trains rumble through town every few hours bound for the coast, where coal is loaded onto ships and sent around the world.
But it’s not until you venture off the highway, beyond the security gatehouse, and drive up one of the mountains that tower over the valley that you see just how big the mining industry’s footprint is in southeastern British Columbia. From up there, you can look down into a deep, dark pit and watch massive trucks — ones even bigger than Titan — scurrying around like ants in an ant farm.
Teck Resources Limited operates four steelmaking coalmines in the Elk River Valley, just two and a half hours north of Kalispell. The company annually ships more than 24 million tons of coal from the four mines. Most of it is shipped to Asia and South America to be turned into coke and used to make steel. Canada has one of the largest deposits of metallurgical coal on Earth, and most of it is in the mountains of British Columbia.
But coal is not the only thing Teck is sending out of the Elk River Valley.
In recent years, officials on both sides of the border have raised the alarm about increasing levels of selenium and nitrate in the Elk River and rivers and lakes further downstream, including in Northwest Montana. In 2013, a University of Montana study found that the level of selenium and nitrate in the Elk River was 5,000 times higher than in the Flathead River. That same year, the British Columbia government ordered Teck to come up with a plan to address the issue. But six years later, the issue has yet to be resolved.
On Sept. 23, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that a recent water-quality study found elevated levels of selenium in water and fish in Lake Koocanusa and in the Kootenai River in Montana and Idaho. Government officials and Teck both pin the contamination on decades of mining in southeastern British Columbia, specifically rainwater that washes through piles of discarded rock, a byproduct of coal mining.
Mining in the Elk River Valley dates back to the 1890s, when small mines cropped up along the British Columbia-Alberta border. The coal was particularly good for being turned into coke — a process where coal is heated in the absence of air — to make steel. For decades, most of the mines in the Elk Valley were underground, but in the 1960s, strip mining, also known as open-pit mining, came to the region.
Instead of burrowing underground, miners would start at the top of a mountain and drill down explosives to get at the coal. After the earth is blasted, massive excavators separate coal from waste rock. The coal is put on a conveyer belt and sent down to a processing plant where it’s broken down further and shipped. The waste rock is usually hauled to the edge of the pit and dumped into a pile called the “spoil.”
The spoil is ground zero for the selenium and nitrate contamination. The spoil often has elevated levels of selenium and nitrate, the latter coming from the explosives used in the mining process. The piles of waste rock are more like mountains than mounds, and it can take years for rainwater that falls on top to make its way down to the river.
In 2016, Teck opened a new tank-based water treatment plant at its Line Creek Mine north of Sparwood. The system takes in water from Line Creek and West Line Creek and puts it through a biological treatment that adds phosphoric acid, methanol and other chemicals to turn nitrate into a gas and selenium into a solid form. After the selenium is turned into a solid form, it’s removed from the water through a process that’s not unlike a large French press coffee maker. The solids are then discarded in a lined landfill.
In 2018, the company found that the tank-based treatment plant wasn’t working as planned and instead was releasing a more biologically aggressive form of selenium into the water. Later that year, Teck opened up an addition to the water treatment plant that uses an advanced oxidation process to remove selenium. Currently, the facility at West Line Creek is treating 1.5 million gallons of water per day. The treatment plant can reduce selenium concentrations by 96 percent and nitrate concentrations by 99 percent, according to Teck. The company is now working on an even larger water treatment plant farther north at its Fording River Mine.
“This plant is setting us up for success at Fording River,” said Marty Hafke, environmental superintendent for Teck’s water-treatment facilities, during a media tour on Sept. 25.
Teck plans on building water-treatment plants at all of its mines in the area over the next decade. Company officials said Teck would spend upwards of $900 million (Canadian) on water-treatment efforts in the Elk Valley between now and 2022.
However, the company is also experimenting with a new type of treatment facility at its Elkview Mine, just east of Sparwood, that officials said might be even more effective. The recently completed saturated rock fill was built by backfilling a previously mined pit with rock. Water treated with methanol is then pumped underground and selenium and nitrate is naturally removed. Dean Runzer, general manager for Teck’s water-quality management team, said it is essentially a natural version of what happens inside the above-ground water-treatment plant.
“The same process that is happening in our water-treatment plants can happen (underground),” Runzer said. “It happens naturally.”
While the company is still testing the system, water-quality monitors have shown that 95 percent of selenium is removed. Teck is so confident in its discovery that it has filed for a patent.
“We see saturated rock fills as the future of water treatment in this region,” said Nic Milligan, social responsibility manager for Teck.
If the saturated rock fill system is as successful as Teck hopes it will be in the long term, officials said they might replace the water-treatment plants with the more natural system.
“Active water-treatment facilities are complex and they’re not a sustainable solution,” Hafke said. “But the saturated rock fills show a lot more promise.”
Runzer said the company is also finding ways to reduce the amount of nitrates found in the waste rock spoils by changing how it packs explosives while mining. Runzer said the new lining system has reduced the amount of nitrate in its waste rock by 70 percent since 2013.
During a media tour last week, Teck officials seemed confident that the saturated rock fills and water-treatment plants could resolve the water-quality issues that have raised alarm on both sides of the border in recent years. That’s particularly important because Teck officials said the company plans on having a presence in the valley for decades to come.
While natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind and solar have put a dent in the demand for thermal coal in recent years, metallurgical coal is still needed to produce steel. Teck officials said the four operating mines in the Elk Valley could stay open for another 40 to 50 years and that there are hundreds of years’ worth of coal reserves in the surrounding area.
Runzer said he doesn’t see the demand for Teck’s coal going away anytime soon.
“It takes 100 tons of steelmaking coal to make a wind turbine,” he said.
Contaminants Detected in Kootenai River Fish
Canadian mining contaminants turning up deeper into transboundary system as stakeholders look for solutions
By TRISTAN SCOTT of the Beacon
The recent detection by government scientists of toxic mining contaminants in Montana’s Kootenai River watershed and the muscle tissue of its aquatic denizens was alarming to local stakeholders even if it wasn’t surprising.
“It confirms what we already knew, but that doesn’t make it any less concerning,” Rich Janssen, head of the Natural Resources Department for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said.
Janssen is referring to a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reporting the discovery of mining pollutants like selenium and nitrates in fish and fish eggs in the Kootenai River downstream of Lake Koocanusa. The sprawling transboundary Kootenai River straddles Montana and Canada’s British Columbia, where coalmines have for years been leaching hazardous contaminants into downstream systems.
The study, part of a collaborative effort between federal, state and tribal agencies to assess the Kootenai River watershed, is based on water chemistry and fish-tissue samples taken on the river in Montana and Idaho from immediately below Libby Dam near the Canadian border.
Data contributing to the study were collected by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the states of Idaho and Montana, and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.
“These data indicate upstream activities may be affecting water quality and aquatic resources in Montana and Idaho,” EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin said. “The results, particularly selenium impacts to fish, underscore the need for a more detailed understanding of water quality and continued collaboration to protect Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River.”
EPA has long been engaged in efforts to address water-quality impacts to Lake Koocanusa, where selenium and nitrate concentrations entering the lake from British Columbia’s Elk River have been increasing since data collection began several decades ago. EPA initiated the most recent study in 2018 to address questions posed by state and tribal partners and to better understand the presence, sources and movement of selenium and other nutrients in the Kootenai River watershed downstream of Libby Dam.
USGS led the EPA-funded study, in collaboration with EPA, state and tribal partners. EPA conducted the fish-tissue analysis.
The sampling results show elevated selenium levels in some of the 142 fish evaluated in the study, with levels in some mountain whitefish eggs exceeding EPA’s recommended criterion of 15.1 micrograms per liter, the level at which fish reproduction may be harmed.
Six of eight mountain whitefish exceeded the EPA criterion, while one redside shiner exceeded EPA’s whole-body criterion for selenium, according to the results.
Previous data shows that water quality in the area regularly exceeds regulatory standards governing the release of pollutants like selenium, which has resulted in deformities and reproductive failure in trout while increasing fish mortality of up to 50 percent in some portions of the river system.
Selenium concentrations in water samples were elevated above background levels but did not exceed EPA recommended criteria for selenium in flowing waters.
Selenium was not detected in water samples from Kootenai River tributaries unaffected by discharge from Lake Koocanusa, indicating that the source is the discharge of mine-related constituents from the lake, according to the study.
Nitrate was detected in water immediately below Libby Dam at nearly three times the concentrations observed in previous samples collected from 2000-2004, and significantly higher than those found on the tributaries. Previous studies show that most of the selenium and nitrate in Lake Koocanusa originates from coal mining in the Elk Valley.
“Communities and tribes in Montana and Idaho depend upon good water quality and healthy fisheries,” Sopkin said. “EPA’s study indicates that the Kootenai River is being impacted by upstream mining in British Columbia and points to the need for continued monitoring to assess Kootenai River health and to track future trends. EPA is sharing the results of this study with our state, tribal and international partners, and will continue to support the development of information and measures to protect water quality.”
Fish-tissue samples were also analyzed for mercury, which can be harmful to people who consume fish. Mercury concentrations were generally below EPA fish-tissue criteria for methyl mercury except for three northern pikeminnow. Tribes and state agencies will consider whether fish advisories are appropriate.
For Janssen, the results of the study underscore the need for more funding to track the increase of mining contaminants in a watershed that holds both cultural and ecological value to the tribes.
“It is very concerning to us because based on the EPA’s study and sampling results it shows what we already knew — that there are elevated selenium and nitrate levels impacting Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, which is aboriginal territory,” Janssen said. “That is very concerning to us, particularly as it impacts fish and wildlife.”
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 coalmines located on the Elk River, which rushes into the Kootenai — spelled Kootenay in Canada — River and converges in Lake Koocanusa.
But the recent EPA study concluded for the first time that selenium concentrations — in addition to entering Lake Koocanusa, where they have been increasing for decades — is also found at high levels in the Kootenai River downstream from the reservoir.
“A lot of us have long felt that this is a watershed-scale issue from the Elk River to Lake Koocanusa down to the Kooteani River,” 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, and who has been representing the CSKT in discussions. “This really speaks to the need to have all hands on deck. We need all of our federal agencies engaged across the watershed, all tribes and the states of Idaho and Montana. Because unfortunately this just makes clearer what we already knew was a big problem.”
In Montana and in B.C.’s Elk River, the source of the pollution can be traced back to coalmines owned and operated by Teck Resources Ltd, which runs four open-pit, truck-and-shovel mines, with plans for expanding their footprint.
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.”
Still, the ongoing detection of mining contaminants deeper into the transboundary watershed and its fish species gives greater urgency to the issue.
According to EPA hydrologist Jason Gildea, the discovery of elevated levels of selenium and nitrate in the Kootenai’s fish downstream from Libby Dam was a surprise.
“To see this result indicates that something concerning is taking place,” he said.
Another recent development occurring on numerous transboundary watersheds, including the Kootenai, involves 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.
Janssen said he’s notified the tribal council of the new findings, and everyone is in agreement that monitoring studies and research need to go beyond Lake Koocanusa and explore downstream mining impacts further into the system.
“What we need is to be able to study it more and determine how far down this is impacting the river,” he said. “We have always felt this was occurring further downstream than the data showed, and now there’s proof.”