Experts Set Stage for Criteria on Canadian Mining Toxins Flowing into Montana

Teck Resources says despite delays, new technology is online to mitigate harmful environmental impacts from mines

By Tristan Scott
Teck’s Elkview coal-processing plant in Sparwood, British Columbia on Sept. 25, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Researchers are ramping up monitoring efforts to better grasp the severity of contaminants in Lake Koocanusa and its transboundary watershed as state and federal environmental officials work to finalize legal criteria to regulate the hazards.

That’s not expected to happen until the end of 2020, but meanwhile the largest diversified mining company in Canada, Teck Resources Limited, is debuting new technology to mitigate environmental hazards spanning the border — efforts that company officials say are showing signs of success despite delays and a two-year setback at its West Line Creek facility.

Concerns have spiked in both countries in recent years and attention has intensified on the Elk Valley drainage in southeastern British Columbia and on Teck, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates four world-class steelmaking coal mines across the border from Montana.

The heavy scrutiny is centered on increasing amounts of contamination from coal waste byproducts leaching into the Elk River and its many tributaries, which drain into two bodies of water shared by B.C. and Montana: Koocanusa and the Kootenai River.

Samples of fish species and water quality taken from Lake Koocanusa and other monitoring sites in the Elk basin have revealed heightened levels of selenium, cadmium, nitrate and sulphate from decades of coal mining activity.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element that can become highly toxic when present in elevated concentrations. It’s known to cause deformities in fish eggs, incidents of which have been documented in the Elk and Kootenai watersheds. Other recent studies, including a damning report by researchers at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, along with disturbing data samples taken locally, have prompted worries about long-term impacts to the entire watershed and its resident wildlife.

For Teck, work to stanch the flow of contaminants in prized watersheds shared by both countries includes launching six new treatment projects at its mines over the next decade, an ambitious effort that company officials say is costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The next 10 years is a pretty busy time for Teck as we work to get all that treatment online,” Carla Fraser, a Teck representative, told members of the Lake Koocanusa Selenium Technical Subcommittee, who gathered last week for a two-day conference in Whitefish. “It’s going to require significant efforts.”

Those efforts dovetail with work by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to finalize site-specific criteria for selenium in Lake Koocanusa, a standard that still has not been adopted despite levels of contamination already exceeding the recommended criteria established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The call for action has gained urgency on the heels of a new EPA report detailing the discovery of mining pollutants like selenium and nitrates in fish and fish eggs in the Kootenai River downstream of Lake Koocanusa.

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.”

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.

The DEQ anticipates initiating the site-specific rulemaking process with British Columbia in the summer of 2020, with a goal of completion by December. DEQ officials said the process allows time for public comment.

Even as Teck pledges to continue investing in the mitigation of mining contaminants through new technologies like saturated rock fill treatment processes, researchers and stakeholders wonder what will become of the mines’ legacy effects on Montana’s watersheds.

“Are there any mechanisms for the long-term treatment of contamination in the watershed?” wondered Erin Sexton, a research scientist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, whose work helped bring the issue to the fore.

According to researchers like Sexton, the inrush of selenium won’t abate even if the mining operations shut down production entirely, such is the scope of the footprint and the size of waste-rock piles.

“All of these technologies require an operator to fund, maintain and operate them forever,” Sexton said. “How is the province looking at dealing with a legacy of hundreds of thousands of years that we are going to see contaminants leaching from this system?”

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