Tracing Mining's Threat to U.S. Waters

Tracing Mining's Threat to U.S. Waters

The environmental concerns have been raised again about the potential contamination of fish by open-mit mines from Canada flowing into Montana's waterways.

Elkview Operations is one of Teck Resources metallurgical coal mines located in British Columbia. Scientists think byproducts
from Teck's mines are harming fish, birds and waterways.Credit...Hunter D'Antuono/Flathead Beacon

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By Jim Robbins

July 11, 2023

Over the years, in the mountain streams of southern British Columbia, and northern Montana, an rugged part of the globe, fish have been caught with misshapen heads and twisted spinal cords.

Scientists attribute malformed animals and the decline in certain fish population to five massive open-pit mines, which interrupt this wild landscape filled with dense forests and wolves and grizzlys.

Since the 1960s, Teck Resources' mines, a multinational mining corporation based in Canada have raised environmental concerns due to chemicals such as selenium (a mining waste) that leach out into the mountain rivers which flow through Indigenous land, and then across the border, into U.S. waters.

Selenium, a naturally occurring chemical element that is important to the environment, is an important trace element. Selenium pollution is a by-product of coal mining that has been known for a long time. The chemical can accumulate in fish eggs and reproductive organs and cause various negative effects. These include reduced reproduction, deformities, and even death. It is not clear what the risk of eating contaminated seafood to humans.

Teck has argued against various federal and state regulatory standards regarding what levels of selenium are safe in waterways. These limits vary between countries and for rivers and lakes, complicating the oversight process.

In the latest case, environmentalists have sued Montana and Idaho over levels set for Lake Koocanusa by 2020. The state standard of Teck is under attack as the debate over the cross-border contamination of waterways rages. This is part of a war between regulators, tribes and scientists over whether these levels are a danger to aquatic life.

A group of scientists wrote a letter in Science in 2020 warning of cross-border pollution caused by Canadian mines. They also criticized the lack of regulatory oversight, which they and others blamed. They wrote that 'Mine assessments and permits do not require the incorporation of transparent independent peer-reviewed scientific research'. They said that in Canada, "Teck's Elk Valley permits allow contaminant discharges to be up to 65-times higher than scientifically established thresholds of protection for fish."

The Canadian and U.S. government were urged to start bilateral negotiations through the International Joint Commission despite previous requests that had not been heeded.

President Biden of the United States and Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, pledged in March to reach a deal by the summer to reduce water pollution within the Elk-Kootenay Watershed. U.S. officials and Canadian officials are in talks in order to establish a bilateral process within the next few months.

Teck has challenged Montana's standard because it is more restrictive than U.S. levels. Teck's Chris Stannell said that ongoing monitoring has confirmed selenium levels in the Koocanusa Reservoir have not increased and are stable. They do not pose any risk to human or aquatic health.

In its 2022 annual report, the company stated that it would continue to 'engage with U.S. regulatory agencies in order to establish appropriate science-based standard for the reservoir. The company also noted that other lakes in Montana have high levels of selenium naturally occurring.

Scientists in Montana do not, however, accept Teck’s assessments or assertions about the levels of selenium in the lake that spans the border. Environmentalists claim that the selenium levels in the Kootenai river have not decreased.

Erin Sexton is a senior scientist with the Yellow Bay Biological Station on Flathead Lake, which is operated by the University of Montana.

Officials from the provincial government say that there are "robust monitoring programs and assessment programs" in place, which have not detected any effect.

The lawsuit filed by environmentalists seeks to protect the Montana standard that is more restrictive. This standard has been criticized by Republican lawmakers and state officials. Teck, in its annual report, questioned whether or not the lower limit is still in effect, likely because of the internal feud between state authorities.

The U.S. standard for selenium is 1.5 micrograms/liter in flowing rivers and lakes. After six years of research in Montana, the standard for Lake Koocanusa was set to 0.8. British Columbia's standard for protecting aquatic life is 2.

Waterway Chemical Tracing

Waste rock from mines can leach selenium when it rains or melts. Selenium levels in the Fording River and Elk River in British Columbia near mines can sometimes be many times higher than provincial standard. Selenium levels decimated a population of genetically pure cutthroats in the Fording River, at least partially. Teck was fined a record $60 million in 2021 under Canada's Fisheries Act, for releasing selenium into Fording River.

Elk River flows for 140 miles, from its source to Lake Koocanusa. This lake was created by damming the Kootenai River which crosses the border. Below the Libby Dam, the lake flows northward into Kootenai Lagoon in British Columbia. It eventually empties into Columbia River.

In contrast to an oil spill, high levels of selenium do not cause large numbers of fish to suddenly appear in the water with their backs facing up. Selenium poisoning causes fish to die in their larval stages, reducing the number of fish.

Sexton stated that it is a nasty contaminant, as it can cause deformities to reproductive organs. They call it an invisible contamination because the eggs do not thrive. It's impossible to find eggs that do not hatch.


Indigenous land concerns

U.S. officials and tribal leaders argue that mining-related chemical pollution is in violation of the 1909 International Boundary Waters Treaty. Tribal leaders from the United States say it could violate their 1855 treaty rights, which guarantee that 'fishing can be done in all normal and usual places'. The tribes want the International Joint Commission to investigate the matter and make recommendations on how to clean up the area.

Montana officials claim that the British Columbian government has refused to take any action to rectify the situation.

Ms. Sexton explained that part of the problem is the fact that British Columbia allows mining companies and other industries to monitor themselves in large parts, as well as provide evidence gathered by their scientists.

Mr. Stannell noted that the company spent $1.2 billion for wastewater treatment near mines and plans to spend an additional $750 million to improve water quality over the next few years.

A region rich in coal

The coal mining industry in this Canadian province dates back more than 100 years. However, the techniques changed in the 1980s when open pit mining largely replaced underground mining.

Cross-valley-fill is a technique used to mine high-grade metallurgical coke, which is similar to mountaintop removal in West Virginia and other states. Explosive charges are used to blast the tops of mountains and remove entire sections of ranges, exposing rich coal deposits. Massive 550-ton trucks and giant shovels are used to mine coal. The coal is then transported to Vancouver by rail and shipped to Asia by ship.

Experts say that cadmium and sulfates are other mining pollutants. This is partly due to the use of explosives for blasting.

Teck's open pit mines produce over 21 million metric tonnes of coal per year. According to an analysis released by the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce last year, the company created nearly 13,000 jobs and contributed $4.6 billion towards the gross national product of the province.

The company has applied to expand two of its Elk Valley Mines and to open new ones.

Calvin Sandborn is the director of the Environmental Law Center of the University of Victoria, and one of its authors. He accused the governments of British Columbia, Canada, and the United States of failing to regulate Teck.

Sandborn stated that if they had acted upon the warnings from their scientists, they could have solved this problem. "And they didn’t because the corporation is too big to fail."

According to the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan of British Columbia, Teck is allowed to continue operating its mines so long as they stabilize selenium levels. They can then reduce them after 2030.

Scientists are concerned that existing mines may pollute rivers for many centuries. Some scientists do not think that the technology is available to safely remove selenium levels from rivers and groundwater. Ms. Sexton stated that Teck could do more in order to seal contaminants within the waste rock.

Critics of government policy point out that John Horgan, when he stepped down as Premier of British Columbia in the year 2022, became a board member of Elk Valley Resources. This spin-off from Teck Coal was created to manage mining resources. BIV, an online publication covering business in British Columbia reports that board members earn at least $235,000 per year.

The Canadian Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy didn't respond directly to questions asking for a response on accusations that the government was lax or inadequate in its oversight of the mining company.

David Karn, the agency's spokesman, said: 'We're pleased that Canada has committed to working with the United States to reduce and minimize the impact of water quality concerns.' Protecting and enhancing the quality of water is a priority. Through our regulatory activities, the agency continues to oversee and undertake projects to protect and improve water quality in Elk River Valley, as well as Koocanusa Reservoir.

Indigenous peoples and conservationists from both countries cannot wait for new policies.

Mining on ancestral lands owned by the Kootenai (known in British Columbia as Ktunaxa) has been a problem for many years. The six governments of this tribal nation stated that over a century of mountaintop removal mining has ravaged the traditional territory the Ktunaxa Nation. It has contaminated the Kootenay River, and the fish which depend on it.

Tom McDonald, chairman and fisheries scientist of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, said, "Our native fishery has a great deal of importance to us." Water is considered sacred by us. It is very sacred.


"You catch a small fish, but its gill plates are missing or it has a malformed jaw. Are you going to eat that?" Mr. McDonald replied. No, you won't. You lose your connection to culture when you can't fish. It robs people of their culture, sense of place, community, and family. It's a very extreme take.

The Kootenai/Ktunaxa Tribes have been working to protect the water quality and fisheries on their territory. The Kootenai tribe in Bonners Ferry has been working on a long-term plan to restore burbots to the Kootenai river. The long, eellike fish is known for its flaky, white flesh and is an important subsistence fish. It almost went extinct until the tribe built a fish hatchery for reintroducing the fish into the river. Selenium is now found in fish from the area.

In recent years, the whitefish population below Libby Dam has declined significantly. Monitoring in 2018 revealed that the population, which is usually 700 fish per 1000 feet, was down 53 percent and 55 percent by 2023. In fish eggs and ovaries, selenium levels above the limits set by states and the U.S. were found.

Jim Dunnigan, who studies the contamination, said that selenium in the mines is likely to be the cause of the decline. It's a cause for concern.

Wyatt Petryshen, of Wildsight in Canada, an environmental group that monitors Teck’s operations, stated that environmentalists are concerned about the recent move by Teck to split its operations between Teck Metals Corp., and Elk Valley Resources which will own the mining operation.

Mr. Petryshen stated that there are real concerns about Teck's attempt to spin-off the company in order to avoid paying for damages to the environment while still maintaining cash flow for their metal mining operations.

Sheila Murray defended Teck's change of plan, saying that it would make the company more profitable and support a sustainable future to the benefit of the employees, the local communities, and Indigenous peoples.

Officials and advocates in the United States said that the International Joint Commission (the bilateral body) would be the most appropriate authority to find ways to reduce and contain mining pollutants. Sandborn stated that a panel of U.S. scientists and Canadians would be needed to advise the mining industry. We need to bring this issue to the International Joint Commission to ensure that we have an effective watchdog.

Jennifer Savage, spokeswoman of the U.S. State Department which oversees its role in the Commission, stated that the United States wanted the international organization to address the issue soon.

We are eager to find the solution.

This article appeared in the New York edition, Section D, page 1, with the headline: Mining and water. Subscribe to Today's Paper or Order Reprints

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