American environmental authorities have formally adopted a lower selenium limit for Lake Koocanusa, giving the thumbs-up to stricter regulations introduced by Montana last year.
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) okay-ed a 0.8 micro-gram of selenium per litre limit adopted by the State of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), for Lake Koocanusa, putting B.C.’s own standards at odds with the American state with which it shares the lake.
Currently, B.C. regulations limit selenium pollution to 2.0 micro-grams per litre – more than double the new Montana standard. B.C. and Montana had agreed to adopt shared standards, but the Canadian province stalled on the process late last year, and has yet to adopt any new limits.
The new standards in Montana throw up question marks for Canadian coal producer, Teck, and the operational and historical coal mines in the Elk Valley – which according to Montana State authorities are almost entirely to blame for all selenium in Lake Koocanusa, as the Elk River – which has highly elevated levels of selenium, drains into the lake.
According to the DEQ, average selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa are currently around 1 micro-gram per litre, with 95 per cent of all selenium entering the lake coming from the Elk River. The DEQ reported its numbers showed that selenium levels in the river were rising over time.
Local conservation group, Wildsight said the new Montana limit would put pressure on B.C. to adopt the same limit.
“B.C. agreed about a year and a half ago to set a shared limit with Montana,” said Wildsight mining spokesperson, Lars Sander-Green.
“It’s time for them to follow through on their promise.”
Sander-Green also highlighted attempts in Montana to roll back the new limit, saying those efforts were “clearly closely tied to Teck.”
A bill to kibosh the 0.8 micro-gram limit died in committee in the Montana legislature at the end of February, right before the EPA adopted the new state limit.
Sander-Green said that for Teck to ensure runoff of selenium to Lake Koocanusa stayed low enough for the lake to meet U.S. standards, they “would have to do a whole lot more than what they are doing now.
“Their current water treatment is only removing a small amount compared to the total selenium pollution that’s flowing into Lake Koocanusa,” he said, adding that unofficial estimates of the amount of selenium removed from the Elk River was around 10 per cent.
For its part, Teck waved away the news of the new Montana and EPA standard, with a spokesperson pointing out that since the company is regulated in B.C. by the provincial government, the company is only interested in the Canadian regulators, adding that selenium levels in the lake have been stable since 2014 “and do not show a rising trend,” although Wildsight disputes that as well.
“In September, the B.C. government announced that it is committed to a science-based process informed by the best data available and that a target will only be established once B.C. is fully confident that the process has met this high standard and after seeking consensus with the Ktunaxa Nation Council,” Teck’s spokesperson said.
The spokesperson reiterated the company’s commitment to protecting water quality on both sides of the border “including Lake Koocanusa” through the implementation of its own Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, and added that the water treatment plants it had active now were already improving the water quality of the river, with more facilities planned or under construction.
“We expect to have capacity to treat up to 47.5 million litres of water per day later this year – nearly two and a half times our 2020 treatment capacity.”
But Sander-Green said that wasn’t good enough, implying the water treatment plan was just an excuse to allow even more mining, and more waste rock dumps that leach selenium.
“We’re very concerned that more and more selenium-leaching waste rock dumps in the Elk Valley are going to be approved based on Teck’s promises of water treatment.”
Sander-Green also took aim at the claim that selenium levels in the lake had stabilized, saying that you could only conclude that “if you take 2014 as your baseline and squint at the graph.”
“The long term selenium pollution data from the Elk River just before it enters lake Koocanusa shows a clear increasing trend going back decades- and the same trend from 2014 to 2020.”
For communities up the Elk River, coal mining is the economic backbone of the region, with thousands of jobs relying on continued operations of the coal mines. For local mayor David Wilks of Sparwood, that wasn’t going to be changing anytime soon.
“We have vast amounts of coal in this valley … and we will continue to mine it until such time as it’s not needed any longer,” he said.
According to Teck numbers, around 800 of Sparwood’s 3,700 residents are employees of the company, with many more employed in auxiliary industries.
Wilks said that the new environmental regulations in the U.S. were “moving goalposts” and it was frustrating to see the livelihoods of so many in the Elk Valley being put at risk.
“I would challenge those in the state of Montana to go find a water stream not affected by Teck and see what the selenium levels are there,” he said, arguing that given it was a naturally occurring element, keeping levels in the lake below 0.8 micro-grams was next to impossible.
He added that he believed the numbers from Montana were mere posturing, saying in effect that words were cheap, but enforcement across an international border was “pretty difficult to do.”
B.C. is yet to announce when it will move forward with a new selenium limit for Lake Koocanusa.
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