Libby Dam

Libby Dam on the Kootenai River near Libby, Mont.

After tracking contaminants flowing into the U.S. from coal mining operations in southeast British Columbia for years, the Environmental Protection Agency has released results of its most recent study showing that selenium levels in some mountain whitefish and their eggs are exceeding its recommended criterion.

While not considered harmful for human consumption, the levels of selenium could harm fish reproduction, a news release from the agency said.

The results show that the Kootenai River below Libby Dam has elevated levels of selenium in water and fish, and elevated levels of nitrates in water, both coming from Canada’s Elk Valley and flowing into Lake Koocanusa before contaminating the river downstream.

“EPA’s study indicates that the Kootenai River is being impacted by upstream mining in British Columbia and points to the need for continued monitoring to assess Kootenai River health and to track future trends,” EPA’s release said.

The study is part of a collaborative effort between federal agencies, the states of Montana and Idaho, and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho to gather water chemistry and fish tissue samples from immediately below Libby Dam to the Canadian border.

Agencies have monitored water coming out of the Elk River in Canada since the 1980s, and tracked a steep increase of selenium levels there, Myla Kelly, manager of water quality standards for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, told Clearing Up. “We hadn’t taken a close look at what is happening downstream, until this study,” she said.

By comparing selenium and nitrate levels in water from the Elk River with levels in the Kootenai River above its confluence with the Elk, agencies determined that Teck Resources coal mining operations are the source.

Kelly said that the scale of mining in the Elk Valley is much larger than mining in the U.S. These massive operations have created huge piles of overburden rock, which release selenium and nitrates into the groundwater and surface water, she said.

She said the company has been working to develop water treatment methods to remove the contaminants. “It’s a matter of finding a treatment that can be scaled up, and that we can be confident is effective,” Kelly said, adding, “I don’t think we’re there yet, although they feel some of the new research will have promising results.”

In an email to Clearing Up, Teck spokesman Chris Stannell said his company is implementing the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan as a long-term approach to addressing the management of selenium and other substances released by mining in the Elk Valley.

“Our goal is to stabilize and reverse the trend of selenium and other substances to ensure the ongoing health of the watershed, while at the same time allowing for continued sustainable mining in the region,” the email said.

The company is now operating its first water treatment facility at full capacity at its Line Creek operation, and is building a larger treatment facility at its Fording River operation. It has developed a new form of water treatment called saturated rock fills, which has been commissioned at its Elkview operations with “near complete removal of selenium and nitrate,” the email said. That facility treats up to 10 million liters of water a day, and expects to expand and double its treatment capacity, the statement said.

Farther downstream, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is still reviewing the results of the study, but Robert Steed, Idaho DEQ surface water ecologist, said the selenium levels in Idaho’s water still haven’t exceeded standards for flowing water. As soon as it does, he said, the agency will put it on its impaired water list and take steps to set total daily maximum loads.

But Steed said he still has questions about concentration levels in whitefish, and whether those fish were captured in the Kootenai River in Montana or Idaho. He said if Idaho’s whitefish are affected, he’s also concerned about Kootenai River white sturgeon. “That’s a real concern,” he said, adding, “We don’t want to affect a long-lived fish with excess selenium.”

Kelly said Montana has not yet adopted selenium criteria for its portion of the Kootenai River or for Lake Koocanusa, where concentrated selenium could be held back by the dam. “Much of our work in the last couple of years has been to work collaboratively with Canada to set the appropriate level of water quality standard for selenium in Lake Koocanusa,” she said.

Standards are often different in rivers and streams, where water is flowing, compared to lakes and reservoirs, where it is not, Kelly said, adding, "It’s because of the way it bio-accumulates and moves up the food chain. It’s really different in different water bodies."

Kelly noted that the Montana DEQ now has the information it needs to establish criteria for both Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, and expects to complete the modeling this winter and set those standards next spring.

Meanwhile, the state is relying on verbal agreements with Canada to ensure that the contamination from B.C. mining operations will be resolved, and selenium coming from across the border will be substantially reduced.

Montana State Sen. Mike Cuffe (R-Eureka) said the selenium issue is one more reason that he’s pushing Columbia River Treaty negotiators to remove Article 13 from the renegotiated treaty. The current treaty allows Canada to divert 1.5 million acre feet of water from the Kootenai River to the Columbia River at Canal Flats. It’s a provision in the treaty that Canadians have never pursued. If they did, it would divert about one quarter of the Kootenai River’s water above the Elk River—where it is not contaminated with selenium or nitrates from mining.

And if uncontaminated water is diverted, he said, the water flowing into Lake Koocanusa and into the Kootenai River downstream will have even higher concentrations of selenium and nitrates.

Cuffe said while the selenium levels are still too low to be concerned about for human health, allowing Canada to divert that much water could raise added concerns about selenium levels.

“It’s not as diluted, so the concentration increases,” he said, adding, “I think everybody should be concerned about that—especially those of us who are living downstream.”

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.