Canadian Coal Mine Ramps Up Efforts to Challenge Montana Water Quality Standard

Teck’s assertion that ‘selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa are safe’ is at odds with the company’s admission that it may not be able to meet Montana’s new cap for industrial pollution

By Tristan Scott
Piping runs across the surface of Teck’s saturated rock fill at Teck’s Elkview open pit coal mine near Sparwood, British Columbia on Sept. 25, 2019. The saturated rock fill is designed to remove selenium and nitrate from water before it flows away from the mine into the Elk River. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

An entourage of Canadian coal mining executives pressed into the Lincoln County commissioners’ conference room last week to deliver promising news for Lake Koocanusa, the 80-mile long reservoir that straddles the U.S.-Canada border in Montana and British Columbia, and which has been at the center of both statewide and international efforts to reduce transboundary environmental pollution for more than a decade.

“Selenium levels in the Koocanusa Reservoir are safe,” according to a PowerPoint slide summarizing a March 30 presentation by representatives of the global mining company Teck Resources, who made the trip to Libby to deliver the news in person.

It’s the latest effort by the largest diversified mining corporation in Canada to quell concerns about its environmental impacts in Montana, where a newly adopted water quality standard could threaten Teck’s bottom line. Specifically, state and federal regulators recently took steps to protect fish and other aquatic life in Lake Koocanusa and the transboundary Kootenai River system threatened by upstream mining contaminants. For more than a decade, the toxin selenium has been leaching into the local watershed from piles of waste rock at Teck’s B.C. mining operations at increasing rates, leading to the state’s adoption in December 2020 of a new site-specific water quality standard for selenium in Lake Koocanusa.

Although Teck participated for years in meetings among members of a binational working group and research committee to establish the site-specific standard, it has openly resisted its adoption, calling the new standard too stringent and describing the process as “rushed.” Despite offering assurances that its water-quality treatment technology can remove 95% of selenium and nitrate, the company admits that the technology remains unproven at large scales.

“The state of Montana has adopted a water quality standard for the Koocanusa Reservoir downstream of our mining operations that establishes a selenium standard that may not be achievable with existing technology,” according to Teck’s fourth-quarter financial report released in February 2022. “We are taking steps to challenge this standard. Ongoing monitoring, as well as our continued research into treatment technologies, could reveal unexpected environmental impacts, technical issues or advances associated with potential treatment technologies that could substantially increase or decrease both capital and operating costs associated with water quality management, or that could materially affect our ability to permit life extensions in new mining areas.”

But according to Teck officials, the root of the problem lies not in the scale of its industrial operations, but rather in the flawed scientific calculations that led to the adoption of Montana’s site-specific formula.

“That site-specific criteria is just plain wrong,” Trevor Hall, vice president and general counsel for Teck American, a division of the global mining behemoth, told Lincoln County commissioners. “The model that was used to set that site-specific standard was not used properly, some of that data was not scientifically valid and it did not follow the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s] criteria for data collection. Despite what you may have heard, the data confirms that selenium levels are not increasing and have not been increasing for the past decade.”

“It’s important for Montanans to understand this,” added Vicky Marquis, an attorney for Teck who also spoke to the commissioners. “The need for this standard isn’t supported by fish-tissue data. It isn’t supported by the experts. And the process [for adoption] was rushed.”

Dean Runzer, general manager for Teck’s water-quality management team, holds a chunk of metallurgical coal at Teck’s Elkview open pit mine on Sept. 25, 2019 near Sparwood, British Columbia. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The problem is, no one else agrees with Teck’s assessment — not the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that adopted the new standard for selenium; not the EPA that approved it; not the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks scientists who collected hundreds of fish tissue samples, many of which reveal that selenium concentrations already exceed the new criteria; not the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) ecologists who helped formulate the site-specific selenium accumulation model for Lake Koocanusa and who conduct weekly water-quality monitoring at the international border; and not the tribal entities or environmental advocacy groups who supported it.

“Teck is playing games,” said Trevor Selch, the fisheries pollution control biologist for FWP who disputes the global mining company’s interpretation of his fish-tissue data. Selch has been monitoring selenium concentrations in Lake Koocanusa for more than a decade, and his research has been instrumental in proving that Montana’s old standard for selenium concentrations in fish species in Lake Koocanusa was not protective.

In an effort to cast doubt on the data, Teck says Selch’s findings that fish species in Lake Koocanusa are registering increasing concentrations of selenium are flawed because he did not rely exclusively on “gravid fish,” or fish that are bulging with eggs, when collecting samples. Because selenium is a reproductive toxicant, egg-and-ovary samples are preferred over muscle tissue or whole-body concentrations when testing for the toxin. However, because the window for sampling fish species in this state is so narrow the EPA has developed a rubric of tissues that can be used to determine whether pollutants, including selenium, exceed a certain criteria.

“Their argument is if we don’t have a fish with eggs falling out of it when we pick it up, then we aren’t sampling gravid fish,” Selch said. “I acknowledged that the fish haven’t been spewing eggs, and they twist that to say ‘FWP says they’ve never sampled gravid fish.’”

“Since 2008, I have processed 907 fish from Lake Koocanusa. Not a single fish has ever had fully ripe eggs, meaning when I handled them and pressed their stomach, eggs came out,” Selch explained. “This is a small window – hours – to capture them in this condition, so it just doesn’t happen.”

Still, Selch says his data clearly shows that 15 fish representing three species (peamouth chub, redside shiner and westslope cutthroat trout) showed exceedances of the new criteria in 2020. Prior to that, just nine fish showed exceedances of the new criteria.

Other agency officials say their data was misconstrued during Teck’s recent presentation, including its assertion that the process was “rushed.”

Jason Gildea, the water policy advisor for EPA’s Region 8 who has worked on the issue extensively, said the process used to arrived at the standard has been exhaustive.

“Montana’s process for developing the selenium criterion for Lake Koocanusa included 41 workgroup meetings, nine public meetings, and a public hearing during more than five years of collaboration among technical experts from federal, state, and local governments, in addition to tribes, First Nations, and other members of the public,” Gildea wrote in an email. “The selenium criterion was derived consistent with EPA guidance and includes robust site-specific data demonstrating that it protects the aquatic life in Lake Koocanusa. EPA approved Montana’s selenium criterion because it is consistent with the requirements of the Clean Water Act and EPA’s implementing regulations.”

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

In 2016, the EPA updated its 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 Board of Environmental Review approved a site-specific standard in December 2020, setting the new criteria at 0.8 micrograms of selenium per liter on the lake and 3.1 micrograms per liter on the river.

According to Teck, the value is unnecessarily restrictive for a reservoir in which selenium concentrations have remained stable since 2012, even as recent data collected by the Canadian government upstream of Lake Koocanusa on the Elk River, which flows into Koocanusa, reveals the highest concentration of total dissolved selenium ever recorded occurred on March 28, 2021, at 9.48 micrograms per liter.

Travis Schmidt, a USGS research ecologists for the Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center, said the agency has been monitoring selenium and nitrate in Lake Koocanusa at the international border, as well as at various locations south of the border, between April and November since 2019.

“In 2021, total dissolved selenium at the International Boundary ranged 1.00 ug/L to 1.95 ug/L,” Schmidt wrote in an email. “This is the first year since we have been monitoring where all samples were above 1.00 ug/L. Also, the 1.95 ug/L value is the highest concentration we have observed at the International Border since we began monitoring in 2019.”

Moreover, although USGS has not performed a trend analysis on Elk River data to determine overall how selenium concentrations are changing because it is not in the U.S., Schmidt said “the recent sample with the highest concentration on record would indicate that selenium concentrations are not stable.”

Erin Sexton, a University of Montana researcher who was the first to document pollution crossing the B.C.-Montana border as well as its bioaccumulation in Koocanusa fish species, said Teck’s assurances that selenium levels in Koocanusa are stable ring false.

“Teck is currently trying to appeal our new selenium standard, and is proposing that we raise the standard to allow higher selenium levels at the international boundary in Koocanusa, when we are already exceeding toxicity thresholds for selenium right now in fish in Koocanusa Reservoir and the Kootenai River,” Sexton said. “And if Teck is so confident in their technology, then why are they trying to appeal our water quality standard?”

According to Hall, the Teck VP, the company remains committed to “a legal, science-based standard” and welcomes challenges to its assertion that Koocanusa fish are safe.

“We are happy to have any and all challenges,” Hall told Lincoln County commissioners. “We want to make sure we are doing the right thing for all of Montana and particularly for those in Lincoln County that are affected by the standard.”