Following years of rigorous scientific study by a multitude of state and federal agencies, Montana environmental regulators on Friday adopted a new water quality standard aimed at protecting Lake Koocanusa, the Kootenai River and their aquatic denizens from harmful contaminants leaching into the international waterway from upstream mines in British Columbia.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Board of Environmental Review (BER) initiated rulemaking in September to establish site-specific water quality standards for the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa, a reservoir spanning the U.S.-Canada border. The BER approved the protective criteria in a 5-1 vote Friday following lengthy public testimony that was overwhelmingly in favor of approval.
While the administrative process began only a few months ago, the proposed standards are a culmination of more than six years of collaboration with leading selenium experts and the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group that included public meetings, data collection and a peer-reviewed modeling report, as well as input from DEQ, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, B.C. Ministry of Environment, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The rising levels of selenium entering Lake Koocanusa have been traced to mining operations in B.C.’s Elk Valley, where the Canadian mining behemoth Teck Resources owns and operates five metallurgical coal mines and is seeking additional permits for new projects to expand its footprint and build additional mines.
Even though the new administrative rule gained approval, a growing chorus of GOP lawmakers from Lincoln County and industry officials have voiced opposition to the regulations, and attempted to stall the process in Montana, at least until the state’s new administration is in place.
On Friday, proponents of the new rule attempted to separate politics from science and described the lengthy process that led to the rule’s proposal as being above reproach.
“I’ve been a biologist studying the Kootenai River for 25 years, and I would like to state that the scientific efforts that have gone into understanding this river system have been tremendous,” said Greg Hoffman, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fisheries biologist at Libby Dam, the 422-foot wall of concrete on the Kootenai River that created Lake Koocanusa. “I think failure to adopt this standard would be a huge, irreversible step backwards in terms of ecosystem health and functions in the river and the reservoir. And adoption of the standard will be a huge step forward.”
The current selenium standard for water bodies was established in 1987 at 5 micrograms per liter. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed updated recommended national criteria at a value of 1.5 micrograms per liter for lakes and reservoirs and 3.1 micrograms per liter for rivers, while also suggesting to use site-specific standards, whenever possible.
In Montana, the DEQ opted to pursue a site-specific standard for Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, with the BER on Friday approving a standard of 0.8 micrograms per liter on the lake and 3.1 micrograms per liter on the river.
Trevor Selch, a fisheries pollution biologist with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has been monitoring selenium concentrations in fish species in Lake Koocanusa for more than a decade, and said the current standards are not protective.
“It’s absolutely imperative to adopt this new standard now as the current criteria of 5 micrograms per liter is not protective of aquatic life,” Selch said, adding that opposition to the new rule based on a supposedly “rushed” process was misguided.
“I’ve been monitoring selenium concentrations in fish in Koocanusa since 2008, and I have been involved in this group since 2015,” Selch said. “This effort involved multiple agencies and the recommendation before you is based on a rigorous scientific process. This has not been a rushed process.”
University of Montana research scientist Erin Sexton, who works at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, has been studying selenium in B.C.’s Elk Valley for two decades, and was among the first to document pollution crossing the B.C.-Montana border and its bioaccumulation in the Kootenai watershed and its native fish species. Based on her involvement in the years-long collaborative process with a multitude of agencies and stakeholders, which set a goal of adopting a new standard by the end of 2020, Sexton said the scientific justification for adopting the standard is overwhelming.
“I want to commend DEQ for leading this effort,” Sexton said. “I have been studying the Elk River and Lake Koocanusa since 2000, when I first examined the effects of British Columbia’s mines. Since then, the mines have expanded, just as they will continue to expand under current proposals.”
DEQ Director Shaun McGrath said that while the agency cannot enforce the standard in B.C., it does “empower our federal government to work with our Canadian counterparts to make sure that the water coming out of Canada into Montana meets our standards.”
“Without a standard in place that conversation is not going to happen,” McGrath said. “We are trying to get to the point where our standards align with B.C., and by adopting this standard today it puts the onus on B.C.”
The decision was cheered by outfitters and sportsmen groups as a protective measure for a world-class fishery, which has one of the most robust populations of bull trout in North America. However, in recent years there’s been a steady decline in bull trout spawning in Lake Koocanusa, prompting state agencies to eliminate angling opportunities for the native fish earlier this year.
“Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River are some of the most popular fishing waters in Montana,” Jim Vashro, president of Flathead Wildlife, Inc., said. “Fishing is a vital part of Lincoln County’s economy and protecting our clean water will help preserve these fisheries for future generations.”
Chris Tweeten, a BER board member and attorney from Missoula, said the state was being proactive by adopting the standards, rather than waiting until the situation worsens and becomes a crisis.
“It is not necessary for us to wait until every fish in the river is dead or all the birds are sick or all the wildlife habitat has been destroyed,” Tweeten said. “The imperative in the Montana Constitution is very much forward looking and proactive. Taking these steps before there is widespread environmental damage on the Montana side of the border is entirely appropriate.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Greg Hoffman as a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
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