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Teck appears in Libby, fights back on troubling fish data

by JOHN MCLAUGHLIN
Hagadone News Network | April 5, 2022 7:00 AM

Canada’s premier steelmaking-coal miner says fish tissue cautioning dangerous doses of an otherwise trace mineral remain bloated downstream in Northwestern Montana.

Data rivalries continue to mount on fish tissue and water collected to assess selenium levels for aquatic life at Lake Koocanusa, as the deadline hit Friday to cease a state review on a stricter limit set at the reservoir on selenium freed upstream by British Columbian coal works.

With a fifth mine decommissioned, Teck Resources Ltd. currently operates four surface steelmaking-coal mines stretching just north of the international boarder in B.C.’s Elk Valley, with plans to expand its operations.

The coal-rich valley ultimately drains into Koocanusa and the underlying Kootenai River, through Northwest Montana and into Northern Idaho, discharging selenium and other contaminants from mining waste rock.

Following years of routine selenium sampling and assessment by a suite of public agencies, U.S.-based officials say, Montana installed a site-specific selenium limit in late 2020 for Koocanusa that’s stricter than the federal recommendation concerning still, fresh waters.

Teck — pointing to its own data, and that of the U.S. — contests that the stricter limit set within Koocanusa, “the most stringent in America,” proves unattainable at times even upstream of its southeastern B.C. mining operations.

“We continue to be concerned that the science doesn’t support an unreasonably low standard,” Trevor Hall, Spokane, Wash.,-based vice-president of general counsel for Teck American Inc., told the Lincoln County Commission last week in Libby.

“As the data fares out, the [selenium] levels and the [Koocanusa] standard, it’s in some cases actually below natural, background levels of selenium going up the watershed,” Hall said. “So, it’s certainly something we’re absolutely concerned with.”

Charging in part that the standard was rushed, if not illegal, the commission too has levied complaints against the special Koocanusa standard, also citing skewed or invalid data reporting but warning that the stricter threshold could set a dangerous regulatory standard for Montana.

An entourage of Teck representatives last week in Libby told the commission that the company works diligently to stabilize and reverse excess selenium and other contaminant discharges into the valley under a internationally collaborative, B.C.-directed water quality plan.

The Teck team, including two staffers who traveled to Libby from Elk Valley’s Fernie, B.C., said the company has invested some $1.2 billion on water quality with plans to have quadrupled its wastewater treatment capacities this year compared to 2020.

The team after the meeting did not specify how much of its total wastewater is treated but said that Teck now removes some 95% of selenium and nitrates from wastewater that is treated.

They said Teck awaits an incoming “implementation plan adjustment” ahead of providing finer detail on its overall wastewater treatment operations.

Through 2024, the team told the commission, meanwhile, Teck plans to spend another $750 million on the effort and has launched more than 25 research and development projects with the overall goal of continued, sustainable mining in the region.

Selenium and other contaminants are leaching from several billion cubic meters of waste rock removed during surface mining operations by Teck in extracting historically massive coal deposits from the valley.

To combat resulting contaminant discharges, Teck’s team told the commission, the company in part routinely monitors water quality at more than 130 sites within the valley and reservoir to asses water quality and aquatic health.

Mining has lived in the Elk Valley for more than 120 years, they said, and coal extracted from it now fuels some 72% of global steel production and 30,000 jobs.

Data-wise, Teck alleges in part that the U.S. incorrectly used contaminant modeling and overpredicts selenium levels at Koocanusa, and that portions of related data — namely, sampling of fish egg and ovary tissue — prove invalid.

“Despite what you may have heard, the data confirms that selenium concentrations in the Koocanusa reservoir are not increasing and have been stable for nearly a decade,” Hall told the commission. “And, in fact, the selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa are safe.”

The stricter site-specific Koocanusa limit on selenium came among a host of other new statewide thresholds against the trace mineral essential to healthful life in finite doses. All of them were approved in late 2020 by the state.

New selenium criteria in Montana comes per 2016 recommendation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act.

The EPA, which approved Koocanusa’s stricter standard in early 2021, overall recommends five thresholds against chronic selenium exposure to aquatic life, including two specific to flowing and still freshwater resources.

Meeting or beating the thresholds is gauged by complex sampling from dried fish egg and ovary tissue; from dried fish muscle tissue; from dried “whole body” fish tissue; or from the water itself coming from a river, lake or reservoir.

When taken from female fish said to be “gravid” — or distended with ripe eggs while spawning — egg-ovary sampling holds precedence over all of the other sampling efforts to “give the most accurate view of potential selenium hazard to reproduction,” according to the EPA.

Excessive selenium exposure is believed to cause unseen reproductive failures and deformities across the aquatic food chain, compounding from particulates eaten by invertebrates eaten by fish then eaten by waterfowl.

In humans, selenium is needed in trace amounts to maintain proper health. However, chronic exposure by a variety of means to high concentrations of the mineral is known to cause selenosis, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The disease leads to hair loss, nail brittleness, circulatory problems and neurological abnormalities like numbness and other “odd” extremity sensations, according to DHSS’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The EPA thereby restricts selenium to 50 parts per billion — essentially, 50 drops for every billion drops, which equates to 50 micrograms per liter — in municipal water supplies.

Meant to protect aquatic life, Montana approved in December 2020 an 0.8 microgram per liter limit on selenium in Koocanusa waters.

The value is drawing contest because it remains stricter than the 1.5 micrograms per liter recommendation made by the EPA, which enforces the Clean Water Act.

Teck officials say the company opposes only the site-specific limit on Koocanusa water, but Teck also has publicly opposed conclusions drawn from recent egg-ovary data.

The data have been widely circulated in the U.S. among stakeholders in fingering greater-than-allowed levels of selenium in fish from the reservoir and lower Kootenai River.

Routine multi-agency collaborative sampling continues at the reservoir.

Of late, 2020 sampling of peamouth chub and other fish from Koocanusa, for example, has been offered in suggesting selenium levels reach as high as 250% or more of what’s currently allowed by state and federal officials at the reservoir.

Teck’s issue with the egg-ovary data lies with samples not being collected from spawning fish distended with ripe eggs, that which scientists describe as being gravid, per EPA requirement.

Trevor Selch, a Helena-based Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries pollution control biologist involved in Koocanusa sampling efforts, said intensive fish egg-ovary sampling was completed at the reservoir most recently in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Selch said that he’s processed roughly 900 fish from Koocanusa overall since 2008. Capturing female fish in the required gravid state during varied spawns proves no easy task, he said.

“Not a single fish has ever had fully ripe eggs,” Selch said. “This is a small window, hours, to capture them in this condition, so it just doesn't happen.”

While Teck contests the egg-ovary data, he said, the egg-ovary data in question was actually collected by a Teck contractor to study selenium fluctuations in certain fish species over time.

“Teck’s contractor selected the fish, processed them, and Teck analyzed them at their selected lab,” Selch said. “I never saw a single fish in question. It was all Teck.”

Teck mining critics, meanwhile, have presented additional data suggesting trouble with selenium on the whole in Lake Koocanusa and lower Kootenai River.

That includes governmental Environment and Climate Change Canada-sourced data since 1984 from the Elk River near its confluence with Koocanusa waters. When plotted, data there indicate a steady uptick in total selenium levels overall into 2021.

Since about 2010, according to the data, all reported samples exceeded Canada’s own current 2 micrograms per liter guideline on selenium, with some approaching or exceeding 8 micrograms per liter since about 2014.

The Elk River overall is believed to deliver some 95 percent of excess selenium entering Lake Koocanusa, according to Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Downstream, routine U.S. selenium sampling into 2021, as presented by the U.S. Geological Survey, indicates that total dissolved selenium levels at the international border have consistently, if not entirely, exceeded the Montana’s site-specific 0.8 microgram per liter limit for Koocanusa since at least 2019.

Total dissolved selenium in Koocanusa at the border last year ranged from about 1 to 1.5 micrograms per liter with a record maximum sample of 1.95 micrograms, according to the data.

Further downstream, routine U.S. sampling of total dissolved selenium at the Kootenai River below the Libby Dam shows similar selenium levels into 2021 almost entirely exceeding the current Koocanusa limit, according to the data.

Selenium exceedances also have been supported by sampling completed by the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho as part of decades-long efforts to restore fisheries along the lower Kootenai.

Last week, the Teck team in part presented to Lincoln County commissioners data specific to “total selenium in Koocanusa” from DEQ that shows a consistent leveling out of the mineral since 2012, though the sampling still largely exceeded Koocanusa’s new 0.8 microgram limit.

The team also presented total selenium data from the border showing the contaminant plateauing but also still overall largely exceeding Koocanusa’s new site-specific limit.

Both datasets, however, did show selenium levels consistently beating EPA’s recommended threshold and Canada’s current 2 micrograms per liter guideline.

Teck’s team included in its commission presentation muscle tissue sampling from EPA’s Water Quality Portal that included “all data from Montana waters,” wherein samples from myriad fish species overall fell well below the EPA-recommended threshold for the sampling type.

The company’s presentation comes on the heels of a separate offering earlier in the month at Libby on B.C. coal mining and selenium releases by University of Montana researcher Erin Sexton, a senior scientist at the university’s Flathead Lake Biological Monitoring Station.

Long involved in assessing regional coal mining threats to the environment, Sexton said Friday among several issues that while the Teck’s referenced data do show selenium contamination leveling out, the data still show sampling exceeding what Montana allows in its waterbodies.

“To me, that just showed very critical evidence that they’re exceeding our new water quality standard in Montana,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter what the trend is.

“It just sort of shows this fundamental misunderstanding about how our water quality standards work in the U.S. and Montana,” she later added. “You can’t go long periods of time where you’re exceeding Clean Water Act water quality standards.”