Editor's note: We've corrected part of this story. Read below.
Coal mines in Canada have been sending a harmful heavy metal downstream to northwest Montana for years, but state, tribal, federal and Canadian agencies all have different standards for how much is too much. Those agencies are meeting this week, and speaking with the public to try to come up with common standards.
Tuesday’s was the second of two public information meetings this week organized by The Kootenai River Network, an international non-profit that keeps tabs on the health of the Kootenai River watershed in northwest Montana and southeastern British Columbia. The panel discussion focused on the challenges agencies face when setting selenium limits across jurisdictional boundaries and an international border. Selenium is a naturally occurring heavy metal that’s been released in high levels from open-pit coal mining upstream of Lake Koocanusa.
Myla Kelly represented Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality on the panel.
"The best approach in adopting water quality standards for selenium, when at all possible, is to use a site-specific approach. So that's the track we've tried to follow through this."
Kelly says the DEQ’s water quality standard for selenium has not been exceeded in any state waterway, although selenium and nitrate levels in Lake Koocanusa, which straddles the US-Canadian border, are trending upward.
The DEQ considers Lake Koocanusa "threatened." However, other federal and Canadian agencies all set their own water quality thresholds in the watershed. Some of those selenium guidelines are exceeded in Lake Koocanusa and the Elk River. Fish with facial and gill deformities have been found north of the border.
Tuesday’s panel also highlighted a lack of tribal involvement in watershed planning. Genny Hoyle is a biologist for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.
"We are local as well. We do not have an official voice in this process. We are relegated to observer status," Hoyle says.
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, along with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe and the Ktunaxa Nation in British Columbia say letters to provincial and state agencies have gone unanswered. The tribes have requested intervention by the International Joint Commission to enforce treaties protecting trans-boundary waters. Montana DEQ does not support such intervention. The British Columbia Ministry of the Environment was not present at the panel discussion to support or oppose.
At the heart of the selenium discussion are five open-pit coal mines operated by Teck Resources Limited in British Columbia. The company was recently fined $1.4 million for polluting rivers that cross the international border.
Teck says it’s addressing its selenium waste in the form of existing and planned active water treatment sites, although a representative acknowledged that the treatment site is releasing a more harmful form of selenium in smaller amounts. Christian Baxter, a spokesperson for Teck, says a fix has been identified and is being implemented.
"It's actually great to be back in a position where we can start really moving forward with putting the mitigations in. But we're very serious about it," Baxter says.
The EPA released new selenium guidelines last year. The State Department of Environmental Quality is considering whether to adopt those new, more stringent standards. Both the Canadian government and province of British Columbia have selenium guidelines that are different from the EPA’s or Montana’s.
Water quality standards for selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa is just one of the topics the international Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group is discussing at their semiannual meeting in Kalispell this week.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Teck had already addressed issues with its active water treatment plant. The error has been fixed in the story text. The original paragraph is below:
Teck says it’s addressing its selenium waste in the form of existing and planned active water treatment sites, although a representative acknowledged that until last year, the treatment site was releasing a more harmful form of selenium, though in smaller amounts. Christian Baxter, a spokesperson for Teck, says that’s been fixed.