Coal pollution more than twice the safe limit in Koocanusa

Wildsight conducts winter water sampling on Lake Koocanusa

A new study on selenium pollution from the Elk Valley coal mines flowing into Lake Koocanusa has found that the amount of the toxic pollutant in the lake’s waters must be reduced by more than half to keep fish safe. The study, from the U.S. Geological Survey, is the result of five years of work by governments on both sides of the border.

This study has been released just days before federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson must announce his decision on whether Teck’s proposed Castle coal mine will go through a federal environmental assessment. Montana, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Tribal governments and US conservation groups have all asked Minister Wilkinson for a federal assessment of the 35-year mine project because of the danger to fish in Lake Koocanusa and downstream from selenium and other water pollution.

“Canada really needs to do a federal assessment of Teck’s Castle proposal,” said Dave Hadden of Headwaters Montana, “because this report clearly shows B.C. isn’t taking care of the lake we share.”

The USGS model, which was based on extensive testing of selenium pollution levels in water, sediment, bugs and fish in Lake Koocanusa, found that the limit to prevent excessive build-up of selenium in fish should be one part per billion. B.C. currently has a target of two parts per billion of selenium for Koocanusa, but Teck has sent enough pollution downstream to push selenium levels in Koocanusa as high as 2.5 parts per billion. B.C.’s target for Lake Koocanusa is not enforceable.

“This selenium limit is the result of years of research and monitoring, using the best science we have to try to keep fish safe,” said Erin Sexton, a biologist at the University of Montana. “It’s a great example of how open science should be used to protect our shared waters. On the other hand, what we’ve seen in B.C. so far has been reports prepared by consultants paid by Teck, without peer review and without releasing the data and model to the public. That’s a recipe for bad science and dangerous for fish.”

B.C. and Montana have an agreement going back years to adopt a shared selenium pollution limit, based on the research in this report, for Lake Koocanusa. But with current pollution levels already far above the limit determined by the USGS, it’s unclear how B.C. could commit to a pollution limit that would require major reductions in pollution flowing from Teck’s mines. Montana plans to set the 1 part per billion limit at the border by the end of this year.

“B.C. has let selenium levels get so high in Lake Koocanusa already that it might not even be possible to bring them down to the safe limit,” said Lars Sander-Green, Mining Coordinator for Wildsight. “Even if Teck starts treating almost all the water downstream of their mines, they’re still planning for selenium levels far above one part per billion in Koocanusa. How is Teck going to reduce selenium pollution in Koocanusa if water treatment isn’t enough?”

Teck’s plans in the Elk Valley already include approved mining that will continue for decades at Line Creek and Elkview, while the proposed Castle expansion of the Fording River mine would allow coal mining to continue until 2060.

“Teck plans to almost double the amount of selenium-leaching waste rock in the next 20 years, just from mining that is already approved,” said Sander-Green, “If Castle is approved too, we could see long-term selenium pollution in Lake Koocanusa at five times the safe limit or even higher.”

According to Wildsight, the Castle project alone would add more than the safe limit of 1 part per billion of selenium to Lake Koocanusa in the long-term, on top of pollution from existing and approved mining.
“Water treatment is not a long-term solution. Teck might be able to treat water for a few decades, but once mining ends, no one is going to be spending tens or hundreds of millions of dollars per year to keep treating water for many centuries,” said Sander-Green. “When water treatment stops, selenium levels are going to shoot way up.”

Selenium, an element that is found in the rock around coal, leaches out of piles of waste rock at Teck’s coal mines and flows downstream into the Elk River, Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River through Montana and Idaho. High selenium levels are found as far downstream as the Kootenay River in Creston and Kootenay Lake. When selenium builds up in fish ovaries, the fish can suffer birth defects and reproductive failure, including in species like westslope cutthroat trout, burbot and bull trout found in Koocanusa.

The USGS report also warns about the danger to white sturgeon, an endangered species of fish that are especially sensitive to selenium, who live in the Kootenai River downstream of Lake Koocanusa.

“Montana needs to adopt this selenium limit for Lake Koocanusa immediately,” said Hadden, “and then we need to work through the Boundary Waters Treaty or the courts to make sure B.C. does everything they can to reduce selenium to safe levels in our shared lake.”

Submitted by Wildsight.