As new monitoring data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reveals record-high levels of the toxic mining contaminant selenium leaching into the transboundary Lake Koocanusa watershed from upstream coal mines, the province of British Columbia (B.C.) last week announced draft criteria for a new environmental rule aimed at tightening restrictions for releases on its side of the international border.
While the news should have been cheered by members of an interagency working group formed in 2015 to craft new enforceable limits on both sides of the border, B.C. is now a full year behind Montana in its effort to adopt a protective water quality standard for Lake Koocanusa and its fish species, and its proposed criteria is a long ways from being finalized.
The year-long delay by B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, coupled with the announcement on Nov. 18 that provincial regulators anticipate another 24 months of procedural wrangling before the standard is official and enforceable — even as B.C. continues to assess new coal mines in the Elk River Valley, which drains into Koocanusa and is the primary source of selenium contamination — prompted a stern rebuke from members of the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group’s (LKMRWG) Monitoring and Research Committee.
“This is deeply disappointing,” said Heather McMahon, a biologist for B.C.’s Ktunaxa Nation Council (KNC), whose traditional territory covers 27,000 square miles in southeastern B.C., and historically included parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington. “This has been delayed, from the Ktunaxa Nation’s perspective, for the better part of a year, which is definitely a challenge for us. When we started down this path there was quite a bit of concern by KNC and its sister communities, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho. But because B.C. and Montana agreed to adopt aligned standards, the parties were assured their best interests were being kept in mind. By decoupling this process, however, we have become out of step and constrained in how we protect the waters of the Ktunaxa. That is very unacceptable to the Ktunaxa Nation.”
In addition to representatives of B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and the KNC, the committee’s annual meeting included affiliates of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho (KTOI), Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Representatives of Teck Resources, the largest diversified coal company in Canada whose Elk Valley mines are responsible for an estimated 95% of the selenium entering Lake Koocanusa, as well as Montana Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, also attended the meeting.
B.C.’s current water quality standards require selenium levels remain at or below 2 micrograms per liter, even as they regularly exceed that limit throughout the Elk River Valley. Meanwhile, Teck is actively working to expand its operations under a plan that acknowledges it will continue to exceed water quality standards, and which B.C. environmental regulators have approved.
South of the border, Montana adopted its revised standard of 0.8 micrograms per liter in Lake Koocanusa last December, settling on a protective water quality value that is only slightly more stringent than what B.C. proposed last week, offering a standard of 0.85 micrograms per liter.
“B.C. does remain committed to establishing water quality objectives on the Canadian side of Koocanusa reservoir using the best available science and data, and the Ministry of Environment is working on setting that objective,” Sean Moore, director of watershed science and adaptation for the Ministry of Environment, told meeting attendees. “We will use this new objective to inform the targets in our Area-based Management Plan, which will then be translated to the permit process. B.C.’s work might seem like a bit of a black box to everybody, but there is no black box, although I’m sure it feels like it after all this time.”
Throughout the lengthy process, long-term selenium pollution levels have only increased as mining continues.
According to Travis Schmidt, a USGS research ecologist, new water-sampling data shows the record maximum for total dissolved selenium concentrations in the Elk River and in Koocanusa were observed in 2021. The elevated concentrations continue even as Teck spends millions of dollars on cutting-edge water treatment technology, which can treat more than 12.5 million gallons of water per day.
As the B.C.-Montana collaboration fails to yield consistent regulations at the border, the calls for federal intervention are growing louder, with tribal leaders from KNC, CSKT and KTOI submitting a joint request to Canadian regulators requesting a suspension of all coal mine assessments in the Elk Valley.
“We note with grave concern that while our federal, state and tribal entities in the Kootenai watershed have worked together to adopt enforceable water quality criteria that protect our shared fish, waters and people, the Province of British Columbia is nearly a year behind on its commitment to all of us to revise its water quality guidelines,” Shelly Fyant, chairwoman of the CSKT, wrote in a joint letter to Canadian regulatory leaders.
University of Montana research scientist Erin Sexton, who is representing CSKT in the negotiations with B.C., has been studying selenium in the 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.
“We are seeing the worst selenium numbers that we have ever seen in this watershed since I started this discussion almost 15 years ago, so the numbers are really alarming, and at the same time the tribes and the federal regulators in Montana and the U.S. should be applauded for holding up their end of the commitment. It’s just in such stark contrast to B.C., which just revealed a draft criteria that’s over a year overdue and then told us it’s going to be over 24 months before it’s enforceable.”
“You would think that B.C. announcing a proposed objective for selenium on its side of the international boundary would be very good news, but what resonates for me is that this number is not regulatory,” Sexton continued. “That means is has no bearing on the mines currently being assessed, and it doesn’t become relevant until it’s enforceable.”
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