Troy officials called on to support new selenium standards
Kootenai River between Libby and Lake Koocanusa. (File photo)
The Western News | December 15, 2020 7:00 AM
State environmental regulators have approved new standards for levels of a heavy metal that has leached into Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River from upstream Canadian mines.
The Montana Board of Environmental Review voted in favor of tightening accepted concentrations of selenium for the river and reservoir during a Dec. 11 meeting.
While significantly more stringent than those applicable to most Montana waters, the new levels correspond to federally advised standards, according to documentation by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Across the state, the current standard for selenium levels is five micrograms per liter. This figure is based on EPA guidance from 1987. The new levels set by the BER for the Kootenai and Lake Koocanusa are 3.1 micrograms per liter and 0.8 micrograms respectively. The updated level for the Kootenai corresponds to the current EPA criterion set for flowing waters. Regulators established the new concentration for Lake Koocanusa using procedures for creating site-specific standards.
Although minute quantities of selenium are essential for animals and certain plants, DEQ officials report that — at elevated levels — it adversely affects a broad range of aquatic life. As this heavy metal travels up the food chain and becomes increasingly concentrated, it can compromise the reproduction of certain species of fish.
The source of selenium in the Kootenai and Lake Koocanusa is known to originate from mines operated by Teck Resources, an expansive Canadian mining company, in British Columbia. To extract coal from the mountainous terrain surrounding the Elk River Valley, miners must excavate large amounts of overburden. Selenium then leaches from this waste rock and into the Elk River and ultimately into the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa. For its part, Teck has invested heavily in measures intended to mitigate the aftereffects of its operation.
The new standards enacted by the BER represent the culmination of years of scientific study by federal and state agencies. Beginning in 2014, Montana and British Columbia officials formed the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group to address transboundary water quality issues.
After setting selenium as their highest priority, the group formed a Selenium Technical Committee to gather data and determine a protective standard for the heavy metal. Experts from the EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were involved in monitoring and research efforts.
In September, the BER initiated the rulemaking process to establish the updated water quality standards for selenium in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. Environmental groups have since asked local elected officials to show support for the measure.
Speaking at Dec. 9 Troy City Council Meeting, Dave Hadden, director of Headwaters Montana, urged councilors to pass a resolution in support of the new standards.
“This issue is really important and it’s gotten quite confused and there’s been a lot of misinformation put out and a lot of doubt fostered about whether these guidelines and standards are appropriate,” Hadden said.
Hadden defended the new standards. All scientists with the Selenium Technical Committee that had assessed selenium levels in the Kootenai and Lake Koocanusa —apart from those attached to Teck — supported roughly the same numbers as those proposed by DEQ. Lowering selenium concentrations would be beneficial to Montana and Lincoln County, he argued, since it could result in financial compensation for damage to water quality.
Hadden also stressed that since the Kootenai River flows into Idaho, Montana could be held legally responsible by the neighboring state for not tightening standards.
While Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) agreed that current standards were set too high, he argued that not all scientists supported the new levels. According to Bennett, some scientists have claimed that the information used for modeling the levels is out of date. Bennett worried that if the river and reservoir were to be listed as impaired bodies of water, it would take years for them to be returned to conditions that are deemed healthy by officials.
“What does that mean to our fishing guides on the river as they put out advertisements for people to come out here and fish?” he asked. “We don’t need one more industry impacted.”
Bennett said he was in favor of conducting more research before setting a standard.
Hadden maintained that the number proposed by DEQ was backed by scientists on the Selenium Technical Committee. He told councilors that Montanans would have to act if they wanted to protect their waters.
“What we’re trying to do is protect the beneficial uses [of the bodies of water] and we have a selenium number that is scientifically defensible,” he said in closing.
Councilors decided to spend more time researching the issue before acting on their resolution.