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Commissioners issue new letter panning selenium standards

Daily Inter Lake | March 1, 2022 7:00 AM

County commissioners put the finishing touches on a letter opposing the state Department of Environmental Quality’s new selenium standards for Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River on Feb. 23.

Intended for publication in the opinion section of newspapers across Montana, the missive questions the state agency’s timing on the change as well as the rationale for the move. Commissioners also reiterated concerns that the tightened standards will land Lake Koocanusa on the EPA’s list of impaired waters, dampen tourism and hamper development.

The federal agency signed off on the new standards in March 2021, a few months after DEQ’s Board of Environmental Review voted in favor of tightening them. Although more restrictive than those on most Montana waterways, the standards align with federally advised guidelines and methods of approving site-specific standards, DEQ officials said.

While naturally occurring and required by some fish and plant life in small concentrations, the majority of selenium in local waters comes downstream from Teck Resource’s coal mines in Canada. The mining giant has, in recent years, worked to mitigate the side effects of its operation, including investing hundreds of millions of dollars and building multiple water treatment plants.

Local officials and elected leaders have, for more than a year, approached the new standards with skepticism. Libby City Council, for instance, voted 4-2 against a resolution supporting the new standards in January 2021. State Sen. Mike Cuffe (R-Eureka) and state Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Libby) quickly came out against the standards.

While making last minute edits to the letter last week, County Commissioner Brent Teske (D-1) said he hoped the document proved persuasive in Helena.

“It’s an op-ed or editorial that the commissioners are writing to hopefully get the state to change this standard,” he said.

“We don’t question the need to protect water quality,” the letter reads. “But we have an obligation to our constituents to raise questions when things don’t pass the smell test.”

The missive criticizes the speed in which the new standard was developed and notes that it came about in Gov. Steve Bullock’s final days in office. It raises questions about the process that will be used to determine whether or not selenium levels in the waterways meet the standards and suggests that naturally occurring selenium upstream will result in an impossible to reach bar.

“We have also not received scientifically justifiable reasons for this standard,” the letter states. “Our fish remain completely safe to eat as recently confirmed by Montana FWP, and we see no credible fish tissue data exceeding EPA’s selenium criterion.”

It later criticizes DEQ officials for what it deems an inaccurate portrayal of selenium in Lake Koocanusa, accusing officials of playing up the threat. Ultimately, it warns that the standards will leave a black mark on Lincoln County.

“DEQ’s standard risks the very real possibility that the lake will end up on EPA’s list of impaired waters,” it reads. “We do not want one of our county’s greatest assets on such a list, which will have serious, negative ramifications for both development and tourism.”

While tightening up the language of the then-draft letter, County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) said state officials are poised to create site-specific standards for other waterways in Montana.

“They’re trying to circumvent the whole process,” he said.

Follow the edits, Teske made the motion to approve the letter for distribution. Letcher offered a second. The vote was unanimous, with County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) absent from the meeting.

“Anytime they set standards like this, it limits or restricts other areas of the state. I don’t think we should be the ones doing that,” Teske said. “The rest of the letter looks pretty good. It definitely talked about the deficiency in the science of it.”