Conservation groups in Montana and Idaho say a petition from a Canadian coal company to weaken standards to protect water quality at the international border would have adverse consequences for Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, where hazardous pollutants are released from upstream mining operations in British Columbia.
The company behind the petition, Teck Resources Limited, is solely responsible for the release of polluting selenium into tributaries of the Elk River in British Columbia, which enters Montana at the Canada-U.S. 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 have reached a water quality protection standard to protect fish species in the Koocanusa Reservoir as well as the Kootenai River in Montana and Idaho, where the chemical has been detected at high levels in tissue samples from fish and ovaries.
Teck is now challenging the Montana site-specific standard in Koocanusa on the grounds that it “is more stringent than the comparable federal guideline for selenium,” according to the petition from the company, whose board of directors of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) The environmental review (BER) is to be considered at its meeting on 8 October.
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 the Montana’s Clean Water Act, but also flies in the face of multi-year interagency collaboration led by DEQ, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US Geological Survey (USGS), Tribes Confederates of the Salish and Kootenai (CSKT) and the Kootenai Tribes of Idaho (KTOI).
“It was amazing to witness such an inclusive multi-government process, which resulted in a water quality benchmark that not only protects Montana’s Koocanusa Lake and the Kootenai River, but also the downstream portion of that basin. pouring into Idaho, “according to a written comment submitted by Ellie Hudson-Heck of the Idaho Conservation League in response to Teck’s petition. âNo one in Montana or Idaho benefits from a review of the Montana selenium criteria approved by the EPA. All selenium pollution entering Montana and Idaho comes from Canadian coal mines owned and operated by Teck Coal. The Council’s decision to approve Montana’s selenium criteria was an important stepping stone in holding Teck accountable for the pollution of our downstream US waterways. A review of this criterion threatens to weaken Montana’s ability to protect US waterways and only serves to benefit Teck Coal.
For its part, Teck says comments that negatively characterize its mining operations “ignore the strong and comprehensive regulatory regime” the company must adhere to, including its implementation of the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan. , which resulted in spending of over $ 1 billion. for the installation of “what is believed to be the largest water quality management program of its kind in the world,” according to the company’s response to public comments on its petition.
“Contrary to comments, Teck is on the right track and will stay there as required by British Columbia regulators,” the company’s response continued. âTeck currently processes 12.5 million gallons per day and is on track to reach 20.8 million gallons per day by 2024 and 31.7 million gallons per day by 2031. The processing facilities of Teck water include conventional tank-based water treatment plants as well as advanced technology. developed by leading scientists at Montana State University using saturated rock fill to remove selenium.
But British Columbia regulators have not moved forward on a selenium limit parallel to Montana’s, despite an earlier commitment to do so, and the province has indicated it will not adopt a binding limit for selenium. in Lake Koocanusa. In addition, Canada’s leading environmental watchdog faces increasing pressure to investigate whether years of alleged regulatory failures by its federal government have allowed toxic contaminants to seep into the transboundary watershed that it has to offer. ‘it shares with Montana, poisoning aquatic ecosystems while causing native fish populations to collapse.
The heightened concern over Canada’s lack of regulatory oversight was evident in the public comments recently solicited by BER in response to Teck’s petition. Comments overwhelmingly opposed a review of the Montana selenium standard, with stakeholders in Montana and Idaho noting that downstream natural resources cradled by the Kootenai River watershed present new evidence of legacy impacts. Canadian coal mines, while not reaping any of the industry’s economic benefits. . Instead, fish species and water quality samples taken from Lake Koocanusa and other monitoring sites in the Elk Basin revealed high levels of not only selenium but also high levels of selenium. cadmium, nitrate and sulfate, resulting from decades of mining activity. Selenium is a naturally occurring element that can become highly toxic when present in high concentrations. It is known to cause deformations in fish eggs, incidents of which have been documented in the Elk and Kootenai watersheds.
The state of Montana is also required by Clean Water Act requirements to meet downstream water quality standards in Idaho, where current water quality test data shows the Kootenai River exceeds state and federal selenium criteria. According to the Idaho Conservation League, this means the state of Idaho can assign a selenium waste load limit to the state of Montana, which could end up with cleanup fees and other penalties.
“A reversal of the selenium standards recently adopted by Montana for Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River would jeopardize Montana’s ability to meet water quality standards downstream in Idaho,” wrote Hudson-Heck of the Idaho Conservation League. “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 the Idaho portion of the Kootenai River.
“The adoption of a rigorous selenium criteria review process raises the question of whether the Board supports the interests of a Canadian mining company in protecting the quality of water and fish in the Montana and Idaho, âshe added.