Contamination from Teck coal mines in waterways of Elk River watershed is a long-standing problem
Bob Weber · The Canadian Press · Posted: May 11, 2020 7:47 AM PT | Last Updated: May 11
The U.S. government is increasingly concerned about pollution from British Columbian mines, following new research that shows contaminants in a river south of the border came from Canada.
In a letter obtained by The Canadian Press, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is demanding the provincial government hand over data explaining why Teck Resources coal mines in southern B.C. are being allowed to exceed guidelines for a toxic heavy metal.
"The EPA ... finds it unacceptable that the province has accepted [a treatment plan] that will allow seasonal exceedances of water quality objectives into the future,'' says the Feb. 4 letter to B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman.
"An independent review could help facilitate U.S. stakeholder confidence in this new approach.''
Reports on selenium concentrations in area waterways show levels up to four times B.C.'s maximum for drinking water. Monitoring stations near the mines have reported levels 50 times what's recommended for aquatic health.
Disappearance of rare troutTeck's own research recently reported the near-disappearance of rare cutthroat trout from a 60-kilometre stretch of the Fording River downstream from the company's four mines.
That water flows into the cross-border Koocanusa Reservoir. The reservoir drains into the Kootenai River, which flows about 200 kilometres across Montana and Idaho.
Research by the U.S. Geological Survey found selenium in that stretch of the Kootenai, but none in its American tributaries.
A coal mining operation in Sparwood, B.C. Coal mining releases selenium, an element that in large amounts is toxic to wildlife and humans. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)"The Kootenai River downstream of the Libby Dam is being affected by the Elk Valley mines,'' says the EPA letter. "The study provides validated information that is concerning to U.S. agencies and our state and tribal partners.''
Agency spokesman Richard Mylott said the U.S. is also worried about a new provincially approved water treatment process.
The U.S., he said, wants to judge for itself.
"[The agency] ... concluded it would be important to have U.S. mine remediation technical experts independently review the likely effectiveness of this technology.''
B.C. respondsIn a written response, B.C. government spokesperson Jeremy Uppenborn said the province "is working with the U.S. EPA and Teck to provide the requested information.''
A Teck spokesperson has said the company plans to spend more than $1 billion by 2024 to clean up its effluent, and that selenium levels should start to drop by the end of this year.
Some scientists say there are similar concerns about other B.C. mining developments. Several projects are being considered for the province's northwest, including the KSM copper/gold mine, which would dig one of the largest holes and build one of the highest dams on Earth.
In a recent letter in the journal Science, 22 Canadian and U.S. researchers warned that when it comes to mitigation, mining in Canada often overpromises and underdelivers.
"Canada's and B.C.'s environmental assessments have been criticized as being weak,'' said Jonathon Moore, a signatory and professor at Simon Fraser University.
"They have been widely criticized as being ineffective and not properly accounting for risk.''
It's time to reconsider how economic reward is evaluated against environmental risk, Moore said.
"We want those scales rebalanced and the way to rebalance that is through peer-reviewed science and processes that are inclusive and incorporate cross-border policies.''
Original publication. can be found here.
SAFS researchers and graduates coauthor international letter addressing transboundary mining pollution
Published by University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences
A number of UW researchers have joined an international group of science and policy experts to publish a joint commentary in the journal Science, calling on U.S. and Canadian leaders to address damages and risks caused by Canadian mine pollution flowing downstream into U.S. states. Led by researchers at the University of Montana, the cohort included five graduates and one PhD candidate from the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS).
The letter examines Canada’s environmental assessment and regulation of large-scale industrial mines in transboundary watersheds. “Environmental baseline datasets, with which mine permitting decisions are made, are frequently insufficient and underpredict environmental impacts mines ultimately impose,” said co-author Sarah O’Neal, a UW SAFS PhD candidate in the Schindler lab. O’Neal’s current research highlights the importance of establishing transparent and peer-reviewed environmental baseline data for critical salmon habitat at the Pebble Mine site in southwest Alaska. She explains the permitting and operation of mines within transboundary watersheds are further complicated by jurisdictional and political factors.
“Pollution from mining activity, if not properly predicted, monitored, and mitigated, can cause severe environmental degradation downstream,” she said. “Mining activities are a major source of pollution throughout the western U.S., including in Washington state, where salmon runs are already experiencing historic lows.”
The complete letter can be found on the Science journal’s website.
This article was adapted from a University of Montana press release.
Western News, May 1, 2020 8:33 AM
One study published last year found elevated levels of selenium in the eggs of mountain whitefish collected from three sites on the Kootenai River downstream of the Libby Dam.
Research by the U.S. Geological Survey found that six of the eight samples taken in September 2018 from mountain whitefish eggs exceeded EPA’s water quality recommendations for selenium.
In February, a letter from EPA Region 8 to two officials in British Columbia cited heightened concerns about water quality in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai watershed.
The EPA letter noted that research has indicated that the Kootenai River downstream of Libby Dam is being affected by pollutants from Elk Valley coal mines in British Columbia.
And it sought information about a new water treatment approach touted by the primary polluter, Teck Resources.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality, EPA and other agencies have long been concerned about rising selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa tied to pollution from open pit coal mines operated by Teck upstream in British Columbia.
State Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, acknowledged unease about selenium pollution in Lake Koocanusa and evidence of pollution downstream of the Libby Dam.
“It is a very serious concern,” Cuffe said Tuesday. “But it’s not an immediate thing to panic over.”
He said the selenium levels might have aquatic impacts but do not pose a danger to humans. He said people who read about the coal mines and the selenium pollution downstream occasionally overreact.
But Dave Hadden of Headwaters Montana referenced a letter in the April issue of the journal Science that was signed by a host of scientists and policy experts. The letter warned of increasing risks to Montana, Washington, Idaho and Alaska from transboundary mining operations.
“The stakes are high,” the authors wrote. “Upstream Canadian mines threaten downstream economies, waters, and ways of life.”
Hadden said the stakes are especially high for northwest Montana.
“If ever there were a neighborhood of communities that did not need more mining waste flowing in from upstream, it’s Libby and Troy and Lincoln County,” Hadden said.
“They can’t afford to be Canada’s settling pond. Our taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing Canada’s economy by paying to clean up their mess.”
Southern British Columbia has large reserves of high-grade metallurgical coal, which is mined and shipped globally by Teck Resources to steel manufacturers. The coal resides deep within mountainous terrain along the Elk River Valley and large quantities of overburden remain as part of the mining.
“Selenium leaches out of this waste rock and into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kootenai River which forms Lake Koocanusa,” according to DEQ.
Selenium is a naturally occurring element present in sedimentary rocks, shales, coal and phosphate deposits and soils. It can be a nutritionally essential element for animals in small amounts but toxic at higher concentrations.
DEQ has reported that selenium becomes concentrated in the food chain, particularly in lakes, and “is known to compromise reproduction in certain species of fish.”
Cuffe said that he and Lincoln County commissioners Jerry Bennett and Josh Letcher visited Teck Coal and toured a water treatment facility.
“There is a tremendous amount of money being spent and a tremendous amount of technology involved,” Cuffe said.
He said he got the impression Teck is committed to reducing selenium pollution from the mines.
Teck says it has developed a Saturated Rock Fill water treatment facility that “is achieving near complete removal of selenium and nitrate.” The process injects water for treatment into former mining areas backfilled with rock. Then, Teck says, “natural bacteria convert dissolved forms of selenium into a solid form which remains securely stored in the SRF and nitrate to inert nitrogen gas which is safely released.”
The Feb. 4 letter from the EPA sought information about the Saturated Rock Fill process and its efficacy. The letter was addressed to George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change strategy, and Bruce Ralston, minister of energy, mines and petroleum reserves.
“We believe it is critical that U.S. federal agencies could have the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of this new proposed mitigation approach by reviewing the available evaluation and documentation of the results of SRF deployment conducted to date by Teck Resources and their consultants,” the EPA wrote.
The agency said an independent review of the performance of Saturated Rock Fill approach “could help facilitate U.S. stakeholder confidence in the effectiveness of this new approach and build upon the collaboration established between our agencies.”
On Wednesday, Chris Stannell, a spokesman for Teck Resources, said the company has responded to the EPA’s request.
“We have provided EPA with comprehensive information on the Saturated Rock Fill water treatment technology in response to their request, including data on the performance of the technology and how it can help to achieve water quality objectives more quickly and efficiently than other forms of treatment,” Stannell said in an email.
Stannell said use of the Saturated Rock Fill technology has been endorsed by the British Columbia government. He said Teck has received approval to double the current Saturated Rock Fill water treatment capacity at its Elkview Operations.
“Our SRF at Elkview has been successfully operating since January 2018, treating up to 10 million litres per day and achieving near-complete removal of nitrate and selenium from mine-impacted waters,” Stannell added.
A spokeswoman for EPA Region 8 did not respond by press time as to whether the agency has received and reviewed Teck’s material
Stannell said Teck is also developing a new method to reduce release of nitrate by using liners that prevent explosives with nitrates from coming into contact with water.
In 2015, DEQ and British Columbia’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy established the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group. The group’s mission is to study and address current and future water quality concerns in the Lake Koocanusa watershed and “to work towards joint solutions for managing potential selenium contamination including development of site specific criteria for the protection of uses of the lake.”
Participants in the working group include DEQ, EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Native American Tribes from the U.S. and Canada.
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
Connect with us
Provide your email to get updates on the campaign.