Resisting status as ‘Canada’s settling pond’
The Kootenai River, just upstream of Libby. Researchers have found evidence of selenium pollution in the river downstream of the Libby Dam from coal mines in British Columbia. (Duncan Adams/The Western News)
One study published last year found elevated levels of selenium in the eggs of mountain whitefish collected from three sites on the Kootenai River downstream of the Libby Dam.
Research by the U.S. Geological Survey found that six of the eight samples taken in September 2018 from mountain whitefish eggs exceeded EPA’s water quality recommendations for selenium.
In February, a letter from EPA Region 8 to two officials in British Columbia cited heightened concerns about water quality in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai watershed.
The EPA letter noted that research has indicated that the Kootenai River downstream of Libby Dam is being affected by pollutants from Elk Valley coal mines in British Columbia.
And it sought information about a new water treatment approach touted by the primary polluter, Teck Resources.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality, EPA and other agencies have long been concerned about rising selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa tied to pollution from open pit coal mines operated by Teck upstream in British Columbia.
State Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, acknowledged unease about selenium pollution in Lake Koocanusa and evidence of pollution downstream of the Libby Dam.
“It is a very serious concern,” Cuffe said Tuesday. “But it’s not an immediate thing to panic over.”
He said the selenium levels might have aquatic impacts but do not pose a danger to humans. He said people who read about the coal mines and the selenium pollution downstream occasionally overreact.
But Dave Hadden of Headwaters Montana referenced a letter in the April issue of the journal Science that was signed by a host of scientists and policy experts. The letter warned of increasing risks to Montana, Washington, Idaho and Alaska from transboundary mining operations.
“The stakes are high,” the authors wrote. “Upstream Canadian mines threaten downstream economies, waters, and ways of life.”
Hadden said the stakes are especially high for northwest Montana.
“If ever there were a neighborhood of communities that did not need more mining waste flowing in from upstream, it’s Libby and Troy and Lincoln County,” Hadden said.
“They can’t afford to be Canada’s settling pond. Our taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing Canada’s economy by paying to clean up their mess.”
Southern British Columbia has large reserves of high-grade metallurgical coal, which is mined and shipped globally by Teck Resources to steel manufacturers. The coal resides deep within mountainous terrain along the Elk River Valley and large quantities of overburden remain as part of the mining.
“Selenium leaches out of this waste rock and into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kootenai River which forms Lake Koocanusa,” according to DEQ.
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.
DEQ has reported that selenium becomes concentrated in the food chain, particularly in lakes, and “is known to compromise reproduction in certain species of fish.”
Cuffe said that he and Lincoln County commissioners Jerry Bennett and Josh Letcher visited Teck Coal and toured a water treatment facility.
“There is a tremendous amount of money being spent and a tremendous amount of technology involved,” Cuffe said.
He said he got the impression Teck is committed to reducing selenium pollution from the mines.
Teck says it has developed a Saturated Rock Fill water treatment facility that “is achieving near complete removal of selenium and nitrate.” The process injects water for treatment into former mining areas backfilled with rock. Then, Teck says, “natural bacteria convert dissolved forms of selenium into a solid form which remains securely stored in the SRF and nitrate to inert nitrogen gas which is safely released.”
The Feb. 4 letter from the EPA sought information about the Saturated Rock Fill process and its efficacy. The letter was addressed to George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change strategy, and Bruce Ralston, minister of energy, mines and petroleum reserves.
“We believe it is critical that U.S. federal agencies could have the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of this new proposed mitigation approach by reviewing the available evaluation and documentation of the results of SRF deployment conducted to date by Teck Resources and their consultants,” the EPA wrote.
The agency said an independent review of the performance of Saturated Rock Fill approach “could help facilitate U.S. stakeholder confidence in the effectiveness of this new approach and build upon the collaboration established between our agencies.”
On Wednesday, Chris Stannell, a spokesman for Teck Resources, said the company has responded to the EPA’s request.
“We have provided EPA with comprehensive information on the Saturated Rock Fill water treatment technology in response to their request, including data on the performance of the technology and how it can help to achieve water quality objectives more quickly and efficiently than other forms of treatment,” Stannell said in an email.
Stannell said use of the Saturated Rock Fill technology has been endorsed by the British Columbia government. He said Teck has received approval to double the current Saturated Rock Fill water treatment capacity at its Elkview Operations.
“Our SRF at Elkview has been successfully operating since January 2018, treating up to 10 million litres per day and achieving near-complete removal of nitrate and selenium from mine-impacted waters,” Stannell added.
A spokeswoman for EPA Region 8 did not respond by press time as to whether the agency has received and reviewed Teck’s material
Stannell said Teck is also developing a new method to reduce release of nitrate by using liners that prevent explosives with nitrates from coming into contact with water.
In 2015, 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.”
Participants in the working group include DEQ, EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Native American Tribes from the U.S. and Canada.