Responding to the recent detection of toxic mining contaminants in Montana’s Kootenai River watershed and the muscle tissue of its fish, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is calling on federal regulators to address the continued flow of hazards leaching downstream from Canadian coal mines.
In an Oct. 17 letter, Tester pressed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to identify and implement additional monitoring to fully understand the scope of the contamination, and to work with Canada to halt the flow of pollution across the border.
“I urge you to work together to finalize and publicly release a report identifying what additional monitoring is necessary to understand the scope of contamination in this watershed, and the best path forward to coming to a thorough and timely agreement with your Canadian counterparts to stop transboundary pollution in this watershed,” Tester wrote. “As new mining activities are considered north of the border, we do not have the luxury of assuming selenium and other possible contaminants are not affecting waterways in the U.S. I stand ready to work with you to understand the threats to water quality in the Kootenai River watershed, and to protect that water.”
Tester’s is the latest in a rising chorus of voices demanding that regulators on both sides of the border address the steady flow of pollution from Canadian mining into the prized waterways of Northwest Montana.
The call for action has gained urgency on the heels of a new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detailing 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.”
In Montana and in B.C.’s Elk River, which flows into the Kootenai, 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 heavily invested in water treatment, conducting water-quality monitoring at 100 stations in the Elk Valley, and remains “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, another recent development occurring on impacted 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.
That unprecedented letter also drew attention to B.C.’s regulatory shortcomings surrounding natural resources shared by the neighboring nations.
Earlier this year, a joint council of tribes spoke out urging Montana, Idaho and British Columbia to adopt more protective water quality standards to protect fish species in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River watershed due to the increasing threat of upstream mining contaminants.
Leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) have formally requested that the state and provincial governments adopt a more stringent standard governing the mining contaminant selenium, joining with the Ktunaxa Nation Council and the Council of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho in making the request.
Meanwhile, conservation groups in B.C. and Montana worry that little is being done to address the widespread concerns, despite mounting evidence showing the contamination is spreading.
Michael Jamison, senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Glacier Field Office, said elected officials like Tester must keep pressuring industry interests and federal regulators alike in order to furnish the region’s watersheds and aquatic denizens with appropriate protections.
“As long as Teck Coal is calling the shots for the B.C. government and its mining regulators, then Montanans are going to need people like Sen. Tester to protect our interests,” Jamison said. “Clearly, British Columbia and its mining companies have no intention of working in good faith with their downstream neighbors.”
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.
However, state environmental officials in Montana still have not adopted a site-specific standard for selenium, despite data showing that levels of contamination already exceed the federal agency’s own recommended criterion.
For example, the most recent 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.
“Communities and tribes in Montana and Idaho depend upon good water quality and healthy fisheries,” Sopkin, of the EPA, 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.”