Northwest towns concerned about selenium issues

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  • Paul Samycia, owner of the Elk River Guiding Company in British Columbia, said he and other anglers have caught cutthroat trout with varied deformities in the Elk River downstream of open pit coal mines that are a source of selenium pollution. Selenium has made its way into Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. The deformities haven't been formally linked to the selenium. (Courtesy photo)

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    Libby Dam and Lake Koocanusa (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

  • Paul Samycia, owner of the Elk River Guiding Company in British Columbia, said he and other anglers have caught cutthroat trout with varied deformities in the Elk River downstream of open pit coal mines that are a source of selenium pollution. Selenium has made its way into Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. The deformities haven't been formally linked to the selenium. (Courtesy photo)

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    Libby Dam and Lake Koocanusa (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Elk River fishing guide Paul Samycia cannot say for sure that the deformed westslope cutthroat trout he and others have caught have been affected by selenium pollution from large-scale coal mines upstream in the Elk Valley in British Columbia.

But Samycia, owner of Elk River Guiding Company in Fernie, British Columbia, knows a lot about fish and a lot about selenium.

“Craniofacial deformities can be the result of toxic levels of selenium,” he said.

One cutthroat was missing a gill cover. Others exhibited spinal or facial deformities, such as snubbed noses, he said.

The suspected toxin is selenium entering the river from four open-pit coal mines in British Columbia operated by Teck Resources, a Canadian mining company. And the selenium is washing downstream into Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River.

That reality concerns officials in the northwest communities of Eureka, Troy and Libby.

Erin Sexton, a senior scientist at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, has studied the Elk River and selenium pollution for years.

“I have yet to see anywhere else the levels of selenium that we have in this system,” Sexton said. “Once you are seeing craniofacial deformities you know that you have a problem with selenium.”

Selenium is a naturally occurring element present in sedimentary rocks, shales, coal and phosphate deposits and soils. It can be a nutritionally essential element for animals in small amounts but toxic at higher concentrations.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality reports that the metallurgical coal mined by Teck Resources “resides deep within mountainous terrain along the Elk River Valley” and that “selenium leaches out of this waste rock and into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kootenai River which forms Lake Koocanusa behind Libby Dam.”

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “selenium bioaccumulates in the aquatic food chain and chronic exposure in fish and aquatic invertebrates can cause reproductive impairments.”

Selenium pollution continues to flow from Canada into Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. Montana DEQ reports that rising levels of selenium in the lake were identified in about 2005.

Sexton said the lake has become a sort of settling pond for selenium pollution from Teck’s mines. She said selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa are exceeding thresholds that can mean negative impacts for aquatic insects and fish.

In June, Dave Hadden, executive director of Bigfork-based Headwaters Montana, made presentations to local government officials in Eureka, Troy and Libby to articulate concerns about threats posed by such pollution.

Hadden recently said Headwaters Montana felt the time is nigh to nail down potential solutions and build strong grassroots support for the necessary interventions.

“For Montana, the problem is going to grow in size and complexity as years go by,” Hadden said. “The selenium levels in the upper Elk River are really off the charts.”

Hadden’s presentations stirred letters to Gov. Steve Bullock from officials in Libby, Troy and Eureka. The letters asked Bullock to support efforts to monitor water quality and research the impacts of selenium on waters of vital importance to their communities.

Congress is considering a $6 million appropriation for water-quality studies for Montana, Alaska, Washington and Idaho, states worried about pollution from mining activity in British Columbia.

Dallas Carr, mayor of Troy, said he has worked as a logger and a miner and is not opposed to mining. He said Troy suffers for a lack of industry.

“But I don’t want anything to happen to our community,” Carr said, noting that Hadden’s presentation helped shine a brighter light on the potential impacts of selenium from mining in British Columbia.

The letter to Bullock from Carr and members of the Troy City Council stated: “The [Kootenai] river and the surrounding public lands form our economic foundation. We write you today to do all you can to protect the Kootenai River from water pollution from British Columbia’s coal mines in the upper Elk River Valley, a major tributary of the Kootenai.”

The letters also asked Bullock to support an open process in the Montana-British Columbia Memorandum of Understanding negotiations so local people can participate in efforts to set a selenium level standard at the border.

Hadden said the federal government must play a large role.

“Montana has a limited capacity to address the problems,” he said. “Part of our work has been to try to get some federal money to do some of the work the state can’t do on its own.”

In mid-June, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., co-signed a letter — with senate colleagues in Alaska, Washington and Idaho — to British Columbia Premier John Horgan. The letter expressed serious concerns about potential environmental impacts of upstream mining.

“While we appreciate Canada’s engagement to date, we remain concerned about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary rivers that originate in B.C. and flow into our four U.S. states,” the letter stated.

It added that “transboundary watersheds support critical water supply, recreation opportunities and wildlife habitat that support many livelihoods in local communities.”

Congress appropriated money this year for what Hadden described as “super gauges” designed to monitor water quality, with one gauge to be installed at the border and one at Libby Dam.

This week, a spokeswoman for Daines said in an email, “Steve is actively engaged with stakeholders in the Kootenai Watershed, as well as Teck Coal, to ensure that the selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River are actively monitored and that the monitoring data is shared with the public.”

A spokeswoman for Tester said the senator “continues to push for adequate monitoring to ensure we understand the impacts on watersheds, wildlife and people.”

Marissa Perry, a spokeswoman for Bullock, said the governor’s office “is in the receipt of the letters and appreciates the input” from Troy, Eureka and Libby.

“We are in the process of providing a response to those requests,” Perry said.

British Columbia officials have heard also from the Ktunaxa Nation Council in British Columbia, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Their letter focused on the process of establishing a water-quality target for selenium in Lake Koocanusa.

“We are reaching out at this time to share new concerns about the health and protection of the fish species that live in Koocanusa Reservoir and downstream in the Kootenai River watershed,” the letter reported.

“Based on the amount of selenium in tissues of multiple species, the uncertainties around impacts to those species based on selenium in their tissues, and the number of years before a site-specific target is in place for Koocanusa, we believe that a more conservative approach is required to protect the aquatic ecosystem through the reservoir on both sides of the border,” the letter added.

In 2015, the Montana DEQ and British Columbia’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy established the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group. The group’s mission is to study and address current and future water-quality concerns in the Lake Koocanusa watershed and “to work towards joint solutions for managing potential selenium contamination including development of site-specific criteria for the protection of uses of the lake,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Members of the working group include Teck Resources.

Teck Resources, headquartered in Vancouver, has business units involved in the mining of copper, coal and zinc, as well as in steelmaking.

In an email Wednesday, Chris Stannell, a company spokesman, responded to concerns about selenium.

“We are implementing the most comprehensive water management program of its kind ever developed in the world and investing hundreds of millions of dollars in research, monitoring and water treatment to address water quality challenges in the Elk Valley,” he said.

“That work is delivering real results,” he said. “Our first water treatment facility is now operating and improving water quality in the region. The second and third water treatment facilities are under construction, and will deliver even greater water quality benefits once complete and operational.”

Stannell said aquatic monitoring and studies “indicate that current levels of selenium and other substances related to mining are not impacting populations of westslope cutthroat trout.” He said the incidence of deformities in the Elk River is similar to rates in streams without impacts from mining.

“We are absolutely committed to putting in the work and resources necessary to address water quality challenges in the Elk Valley and ensuring the health of the watershed now and for the future,” Stannell added.

Sexton isn’t convinced.

“I think it’s disingenuous to say they are doing everything they can and that we should not be concerned about the long-term health of the Kootenai River system,” she said.

“I think the recent letters from Eureka, Troy and Libby send an important message to the governor’s office,” she said. “From what I have seen of the data on water quality and fish in the Elk River and Lake Koocanusa, we definitely have reason to be worried here in Montana about the immediate and long-term impacts from Teck Coal’s Elk Valley mines in B.C. and who will be held accountable.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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