If you follow the eastern shore of Lake Koocanusa beyond Libby Dam for 50 nautical miles, you’ll run into the Elk River tributary, where selenium meets the Kootenai.
A byproduct of mining on the Canadian side of the border, selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa exceed Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) contamination criterion. As part of an international and multi-agency response to the concern, representatives from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Kootenai River Network, DEQ, mining company Teck Resources and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ held a panel discussion in Libby on Nov. 12 to review water quality in Lake Koocanusa.
Rising levels of selenium in the lake were first documented in 2005. Since then, researchers have been keeping a close eye on the four operational metallurgical coal mines on the Elk River in British Columbia, Canada.
The Elk River is a tributary of the Kootenai River — spelled Kootenay in Canada — that helps form the 90-mile Lake Koocanusa behind Libby Dam.
DEQ representative Lauren Sullivan defined selenium as a naturally occurring element that is essential for living organisms but can be toxic when highly concentrated.
“The thing with selenium is that there is kind of a fine line between the amount needed to be essential for living organisms and the level that makes it toxic,” she said.
Southern British Columbia boasts large reserves of high-grade coal that it ships globally for steel production by Teck Resources. The mining company operates the four open-pit, truck-and-shovel mines and has plans to expand its carbon footprint in the Elk River Valley.
The coal resides deep within mountainous terrain along the Elk River Valley, which means large quantities of overburden — waste rock — are leftover as part of the mining process. Selenium seeps out of the waste rock and into the Elk River that then trickles into Lake Koocanusa, acerbated during heavy rainfall and snow runoff.
“We know selenium is increasing over time,” Sullivan said. Using data collected by Environment and Climate Change Canada in the 1980s to present, “we see a really clear trend of increasing selenium levels,” she said.
Sullivan said that 95 percent of the selenium saturation in Lake Koocanusa comes from the Elk River.
That being said, the Elk River contributes just over 25 percent of the water that makes up Lake Koocanusa. Meaning that the rest of the water in Lake Koocanusa is able to dilute the selenium and keep levels to a point where a fish advisory is not warranted.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has sampled fish tissues in six different species from 2008 to present. The highest concentrations were in shad, red shiners, and longnose and largescale sucker fish.
“Some slightly elevated levels of selenium in westslope cutthroat trout, but not to the levels that we are seeing in other species that are not typically consumed,” FWP officials said.
As the fourth most sensitive fish species to selenium (sturgeon being most), FWP officials have warned that westslope cutthroat trout are approaching threshold concentrations of selenium in their tissues.
As far as alleged deformities, FWP officials said there are no physical deformities in Lake Koocanusa that are directly attributed to selenium. FWP added that the fish in Lake Koocanusa are safe to eat by EPA selenium standards.
Sullivan said if a fish advisory is necessary, FWP will be the agency to issue it.
Researchers have also been keeping track of nitrate levels. Sullivan said that nitrate levels from the base of Libby dam into Canada gradually increase in concentration the closer samples are taken to the Elk River.
“Not as stark as selenium levels, but DEQ is concerned that the nitrate concentration levels are high,” Sullivan said.
Downstream from Libby Dam, the Kootenai River is monitored by the EPA and U.S. Geological Survey. EPA hydrologist Jason Gildea said the EPA did find selenium contaminants, “but that’s not surprising.”
Gildea said that six out of eight mountain whitefish samples collected in the Kootenai River exceeded the EPA recommended limit.
“It’s interesting and concerning because the selenium concentrations in the river are quite low, but those fish concentrations are quite high,” Gildea said. “More work definitely needs to be done and I think it’s indicative that something might be going on.”
A transboundary effort to mitigate selenium numbers between British Columbia and Montana is underway. Campaigned by Montana DEQ as “one lake, one number,” officials hope that British Columbia will adopt the standard set by the EPA and DEQ.
“We do have memorandum of understanding about this process that has not been signed,” said Montana DEQ Supervisor, Myla Kelly. “But in lieu of that, British Columbia has provided commitment through a letter to our director of environmental quality about working together toward a joint number.”
An underlined language discrepancy among the EPA and British Columbia is that the EPA manages according to water quality standards, where British Columbia refers to water quality objectives. The latter is not a law like a standard is, but rather is a consideration.
British Columbia representative said objectives “are not an enforcement tool, they still speak to thresholds for uses and are incorporated under Canada’s environmental management act.”
Although not involved in the decision-making process, Kootenai and Salish Tribes are following along.
“We are carefully watching what is happening,” said Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ representative, Richard Janssen.
“Some people may ask, ‘why are we even involved?’ Well this is Salish and Kootenai territory.”
The tribe said they have sent letters about keeping tribal “waters clean and pristine” dating back to when John Kerry served as Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s administration and currently with Mike Pompeo.
“It’s kind of frustrating because we just don’t get a response,” Janssen said. “Our hope is that they look at this a little more closely and maybe make it a priority.”
Montana Senator Jon Tester sent a letter on Oct. 17 pressing the EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to come to an agreement with their “Canadian counterparts to stop transboundary pollution in this watershed.”
DEQ is leading the charge to get Canada on board with reducing levels of both selenium and nitrates.
Kelly said any new mine projects are expected to contribute to the overall reduction of selenium and use best mining management practices. There are three potential mining projects in the environmental assessment process in the Elk River Valley.
A Teck Resources representative said that they have incorporated water treatment services into their mining facilities. For example, Teck released that it is using saturated rock fills to remove selenium and nitrates in 10 million liters of mine-affected water per day.
Some public comments from the meeting said if this were a more prized body of water, there wouldn’t be any mines polluting it.
One fishing outfitter said, “I’ve seen gill-damaged and bug-eyed fish that are all signs of selenium poisoning.”
Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennett, who recalled attending one of the first meetings in Eureka about selenium pollution, said “government moves at a really slow pace.”
“I get extremely frustrated with trying to turn a battleship around in a bathtub and I see some real positives here and I think we should just keep chugging away at it and fix the problem so that we don’t have reoccurring issues down the road,” he said.
DEQ anticipates initiating the site-specific rulemaking process with British Columbia in the summer of 2020, with a goal of completion by December. DEQ officials said the process allows time for public comment.