Environment

Canadian Coal Company Petitions Montana to Weaken Water Quality Standard

Teck Resources asks state Board of Environmental Review to increase its allowable limit for the mining pollutant selenium, which is leaching from B.C. mines into downstream waterways

By Tristan Scott
Lake Koocanusa on June 16, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono

The largest diversified mining corporation in Canada has petitioned environmental regulators in Montana to weaken a new water quality standard at the international border, where for years pollutants have been leaching from the company’s British Columbia coal mines into the Kootenai River basin, including Lake Koocanusa.

The company behind the petition, Teck Resources Limited, is solely responsible for the release of mining contaminants into tributaries of B.C.’s Elk River, which enters Montana at the U.S.-Canada border before joining the Kootenai River. After six years of analysis, a multitude of state, federal and tribal agencies on both sides of the border arrived at a protective water quality standard to safeguard fish species in Koocanusa reservoir as well as the Kootenai River in Montana and Idaho, where a chemical byproduct called selenium continues to be detected at elevated levels in fish tissue and egg ovary samples.

Teck is now challenging Montana’s site-specific standard on the grounds that it “is more stringent than the comparable federal guideline for selenium,” according to the company’s petition, which the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Board of Environmental Review (BER) took under consideration at its Aug. 13 meeting.

According to DEQ attorney Kurt Moser, the agency intends to oppose Teck’s petition as an intervenor, but it had not filed a response as of Aug. 23, when this article was published.

“I just wanted to let you know we are intending to intervene in this petition, and should be filing something fairly soon along those lines,” Moser told BER members during the meeting. “I guess I’d rather not comment any more, other than to say I am aware that in the Board’s record, there is an analysis that was done that the Board adopted already, and the Board has already concluded that the selenium standards that were adopted were not more stringent than federal.”

Meanwhile, BER did not address the merits of Teck’s petition at its Aug. 13 meeting, but rather debated the process for addressing it, and whether it has the authority to do so.

David Lehnherr, a BER member, said it was a “waste of the Board’s time” to determine whether the company responsible for the very pollution DEQ is attempting to mitigate should be allowed to outmaneuver the state’s rulemaking process.

“This issue was dealt with last year, and we came to a very scientifically sound conclusion that was in the best interests of Montana and its waterways, and now we have a corporation trying to circumvent the DEQ,” Lehnherr said. “And so I would say we should just do whatever we can to avoid further involvement with this case, and let the good judgment that the Board made last year stand.”

Indeed, one year ago, BER initiated rulemaking to establish site-specific water quality standards for the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa, approving the protective criteria last December following lengthy public testimony that was overwhelmingly in favor of approval.

Prior to that approval, the 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 that states use site-specific standards whenever appropriate and applicable.

In Montana, the DEQ opted to pursue a site-specific standard for Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River due to the sensitivity of its fish species and the increased loads of toxic chemicals bearing down on the waterway from Teck’s piles of waste rock in Canada. The state BER approved a site-specific standard last December, setting the new criteria at 0.8 micrograms of selenium per liter on the lake and 3.1 micrograms per liter on the river.

Trevor Selch, a fisheries pollution biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), 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 last year.

While the administrative process began only a few months before the rule was adopted, 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, FWP, EPA, 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.

Erin Sexton 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. Throughout the rulemaking process to set a protective standard at the international border, Sexton has represented the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), which has a vested interest in protecting the water quality and aquatic species inhabiting traditional Indigenous territories.

Sexton noted that even as Teck opposes Montana’s water quality value enacted to protect the state’s world-class fisheries from ongoing contaminations, the company continues to surpass the standard while pressing forward on the development of new mines.

“Not only are they opposing the criteria that we spent six years working to finalize, but they are exceeding the criteria while seeking permission from British Columbia to build new mines,” Sexton said. “We obviously can’t rely on B.C. to regulate Teck, so we need this standard at our boundary. It’s the only insurance that Montana has currently to protect our waters.”

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