Environment

Groups Oppose B.C. Mine’s Appeal to Weaken Pollution Criteria on Koocanusa

Stakeholders in Montana and Idaho are pushing back against Teck Coal’s petition to review the allowable limit of a mining pollutant at the U.S.-Canada border

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

Conservation groups in Montana and Idaho say a Canadian coal company’s petition to weaken protective water quality criteria at the international border would have detrimental consequences to Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, where hazardous pollutants are leaching from upstream mining operations in British Columbia.

The company behind the petition, Teck Resources Limited, bears sole responsibility for the release of the pollutant selenium 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 the chemical has been detected at elevated levels in fish tissue and egg ovary samples.

Teck is now challenging Montana’s site-specific standard at Koocanusa on the grounds that it “is more stringent than the comparable federal guideline for selenium,” according to the company’s petition, the merits of which the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Board of Environmental Review (BER) is set to consider at its Oct. 8 meeting.

But conservation groups, including Montana Trout Unlimited, the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Clark Fork Coalition, and the Idaho Conservation League, say a reversal of the standard adopted late last year would not only violate Montana’s Clean Water Act, but also flies in the face of the multi-year, interagency collaboration conducted by the DEQ, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), and Kootenai Tribes of Idaho (KTOI).

“It was incredible to witness such an inclusive, multi-governmental process, that resulted a water quality criteria that not only protects Montana’s Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, but also the downstream portion of this watershed in Idaho,” according to a written comment submitted by Ellie Hudson-Heck, of Idaho Conservation League, in response to Teck’s petition. “No one in Montana or Idaho benefits from a review of the EPA-approved Montana selenium criteria. All of the selenium pollution entering Montana and Idaho comes from Canadian coal mines owned and operated by Teck Coal. The Board’s decision to approve the Montana selenium criteria provided an important stepping stone to successfully hold Teck accountable for polluting our downstream U.S. waterways. A review of this criteria threatens to weaken Montana’s ability to protect U.S. waterways and only serves to benefit Teck Coal.”

For its part, Teck says comments that negatively characterize its mining operations “ignore the robust and comprehensive regulatory scheme” by which the company must abide, including its implementation of the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, which has led to more than $1 billion in expenditures for the installation of “what is believed to be the largest water quality management program of its kind anywhere in the world,” according to the company’s response to public comment on its petition.

“Contrary to the comments, Teck is on the right path and will remain there, as required by British Columbian regulators,” the company’s response continues. “Teck currently treats 12.5 million gallons per day and is on track to expand to 20.8 million gallons per day by 2024 and 31.7 million gallons per day by 2031. Teck’s water treatment facilities include conventional tank-based water treatment plants as well as cutting edge technology developed by premier scientists at Montana State University using saturated rock fills to remove selenium.”

But B.C. regulators have failed to move forward on a selenium limit that parallels Montana’s, despite making a previous commitment to do so, and the province has indicated it will not be adopting an enforceable limit for selenium in Lake Koocanusa. Moreover, Canada’s top environmental watchdog is facing mounting pressure to investigate whether years of alleged regulatory failures by its federal government has allowed toxic contaminants to leach into the transboundary watershed it shares with Montana, poisoning aquatic ecosystems while leading to the collapse of native fish populations.

The heightened concern over Canada’s lack of regulatory oversight was evident throughout the public comments recently solicited by BER in response to Teck’s petition. The comments overwhelmingly opposed a review of Montana’s selenium standard, with stakeholders in both Montana and Idaho noting that downstream natural resources cradled by the Kootenai River watershed are presenting new evidence of the legacy impacts of Canadian coal mines, while reaping none of the industry’s economic benefits. Instead, samples of fish species and water quality taken from Lake Koocanusa and other monitoring sites in the Elk basin have revealed heightened levels of not only selenium, but also cadmium, nitrate and sulphate, resulting 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.

The state of Montana is also obligated by Clean Water Act requirements to meet downstream water quality standards in Idaho, where current water quality testing data demonstrate that the Kootenai River exceeds state and federal selenium criteria. According to Idaho Conservation League, that means the state of Idaho may assign a selenium waste load limit to the state of Montana, which could wind up on the hook for cleanup costs and other penalties.

“A reversal of Montana’s recently adopted selenium standards for Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River would jeopardize Montana’s ability to meet downstream water quality standards in Idaho,” Idaho Conservation League’s Hudson-Heck wrote. “If the State of Montana chooses to repeal the new selenium standards for Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, the Idaho Conservation League is prepared to pursue all administrative and legal avenues to protect water quality in Idaho’s reach of the Kootenai River.”

“Adopting a process to review the stringency of the selenium criteria raises the question of whether the Board supports a Canadian mining company’s interests over protecting Montana and Idaho’s water quality and fish,” she added.

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