International Joint Commission Divided on Kootenai River Pollution

Concerned U.S. delegates of a commission charged with protecting the quality of water spilling across the international boundary with Canada have publicly released claims that their Canadian counterparts are ignoring evidence of transboundary pollution and downplaying alarming levels of mining contaminants rushing out of British Columbia’s Elk Valley coal mines and into Montana.

The two U.S. representatives serve on the International Joint Commission (IJC), which is tasked with resolving transboundary water disputes under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. The commissioners recently released a letter to the U.S. State Department criticizing Canada’s three IJC representatives for their refusal to endorse a new report showing harmful effects to aquatic life and human health as a result of pollution stemming from coal mines owned and operated by Teck Resources Ltd.

“Our Canadian colleagues prefer an earlier version of the report that is weak on addressing the recently defined impacts of selenium in the Elk River-Lake Koocanusa-Kootenai River watersheds,” the letter states, referring to a type of mining contaminant.

It’s the latest call to action to address an ongoing problem brewing in the transboundary Kootenai River watershed, where toxic contaminants leaching from coal mines situated upstream on the Elk River are flowing south through the Rocky Mountains before joining the Kootenay River in Canada and converging in Lake Koocanusa, the sprawling reservoir that spans the U.S.-Canada border.

Scientific research shows the contaminants are poisoning a prized aquatic ecosystem, while progress to address the alarming levels of hazardous mining waste has been slow, both on the part of Teck and the Canadian government.

According to Chris Stannell, Teck’s senior communications specialist, the company is conducting water-quality monitoring stories at 100 stations in the Elk Valley.

“Overall, these studies and monitoring confirm that the targets for selenium and other substances established in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan are appropriate and protective of aquatic life,” Stannell wrote in an email. “They also indiciate that while concentrations of selenium and other substances are generally trending as expected, they are not affecting fish populations.”

But the strongly worded letter from U.S. Commissioners Rich Moy and Lorna Pollack cites recent data showing that water quality regularly exceeds regulatory standards governing the release of pollutants like selenium, and chastises Canadian commissioners for ignoring a report detailing the scope of the pollution and its deleterious ecological impact, including resulting in deformities and reproductive failure in trout and increasing fish mortality of up to 50 percent in some portions of the river system.

“Specifically, U.S. Commissioners are very concerned about long-term impacts of selenium pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watersheds caused by leaching of mountain valleys filled with waste materials from existing and expanding mountaintop coal mines,” the letter states. “In addition to documented short-term impacts, it is well understood that high concentrations of selenium will have long lasting impacts on water quality, fish, other aquatics species, wildlife and human health in southeast B.C. and northwestern Montana communities. These impacts could become permanent. Besides selenium, other significant pollutants from the exposed waste rock include nitrates (nitrate-N), sulfates, and cadmium.”

According to data collected and published by Teck and the state of Montana, selenium concentrations have progressively increased and are now 70 times higher in the Elk and Fording Rivers as compared to the Flathead and are projected to continually rise as mines expand, the letter states.

The need for more stringent water-quality standards gained urgency last summer as Teck, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates five steelmaking coal mines just across the border from Montana, announced plans to shut down its active water quality treatment facility on a tributary of the Elk River called Line Creek.

The experimental $120 million water-treatment facility was designed to stem the flow of selenium, but it was determined to be releasing an even more biologically toxic form of the contaminant.

All five Teck mines are open-pit, truck-and-shovel mines, with plans for expanding their footprints.

Meanwhile, Teck is laying plans for five additional treatment facilities set forth in the company’s Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, which was created to ensure both short- and long-term aquatic health.

Stannell said Teck anticipated spending $850-900 million over the next five years toward construction of the facilities, the second of which is currently under construction.

“In addition, we are conducting a comprehensive multi-year research and development program to improve the technologies and practices available to manage water quality,” he wrote.

However, the failure of the Line Creek facility raises doubts about whether the treatment facilities are effective, according to the letter.

“There is a question as to whether the technology even exists to remove selenium from large volumes of flowing water and there is no viable solution to remove selenium from groundwater,” the letter states.

Ric Hauer, a University of Montana professor of limnology, has been studying the transboundary water system and the effects of pollution for four decades. In 2013, he co-authored a study that revealed how pollutants leaching into the heavily mined Elk River drainage in southeastern B.C. have reached alarming levels, particularly as selenium threatens critical fish habitat in Canada and downstream in Montana.

Hauer and his research colleague Erin Sexton reported that the contaminants presented a “significant threat to the ecological integrity of these streams and rivers,” and urged both U.S. and Canada regulatory bodies to act with urgency.

The letter from the IJC commissioners, Hauer said, is a significant development, particularly because the nonpartisan commission rarely appears divided on a given issue. The letter represents a striking break in IJC protocol, where consensus is usually reached on most decisions, and it illustrates the high degree of disagreement surrounding the Kootenai River issue.

“It is an extraordinarily unusual move,” Hauer said. “Usually the IJC commissioners will come to an overall agreement on an issue. But you can almost think of this as a minority report.”

Currently, selenium levels as high as 2.7 micrograms per liter are being measured at the U.S. Canadian border, while the maximum allowable limit under guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 1.5 micrograms per liter.

“Today, selenium is a significant environmental and human health concern in the Elk/Koocanusa drainage in both countries,” the IJC letter states. “Selenium concentrations are already four times higher than B.C.’s own drinking water guideline in the Fording River and Line Creek. Yet, B.C. still issued mine expansions to a number of Teck’s existing mines. Recently, one of the three municipal water supply wells in Sparwood (where many of the mine workers live) was contaminated by selenium and had to be shut down.”

A number of domestic water supply wells have also registered high selenium levels, the letter states, while ground contamination “will only get worse as the zone of influence by leaching selenium through mine spoils is very expansive and will last for centuries in the Elk River watershed.”

Hauer doesn’t take comfort in Teck’s promise to set straight its record of discharging high volumes of mining contaminants. He said the issues brewing on the Elk River have the potential to be “a multi-millennial problem,” and remains skeptical that a company like Teck can commit to the kind of long-term treatment necessary to repair a century-long legacy of mining damage on the Elk.

“The problem is it requires an incredible amount of forever maintenance. And it requires not a decade’s commitment. It doesn’t even require a century’s commitment. It requires a millennia’s commitment,” Hauer said. “It basically means saying, ‘We are going to do this forever.’ And there isn’t a company on the planet that can do that.”

The IJC letter isn’t the first time that Teck has come under fire for violating water-quality standards, and the company has repeatedly been fined for exceeding regulations.

In 2016, the British Columbia Auditor General released a scathing two-year audit chastising provincial mine regulators for “a decade of neglect in compliance and enforcement,” highlighting the coal mines above Lake Koocanusa as particularly egregious examples.

“We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the (Ministry of Energy and Mines) and the (Ministry of Environment) were not met,” B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer wrote in the report.

Bellringer wrote that if the B.C. Ministry of Environment can’t properly enforce selenium regulations, it risks violating a 1909 treaty between the United States and Canada forbidding pollution of transboundary water bodies. She stated the ministry’s planned water treatment plants put an onus on the provincial government “to monitor these facilities in perpetuity and ensure that they are maintained” at taxpayers’ expense.

In 2013, the B.C. government ordered Teck to address the issue of contaminants in the Elk River drainage, resulting in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan and Technical Advisory Committee. The committee was composed of leading scientists from provincial, state and both Canadian and U.S. federal governments, along with Teck’s staff and contractors. Representatives of the Ktunaxa Nation were also at the forefront of the committee.

The commissioners’ letter concludes: “The on-going leaching of mining contaminants including selenium into an international river basin is a liability to Canada and the U.S. The U.S. Commissioners firmly agree with the 2016 B.C. Auditor General’s assessment that B.C.’s negligence to address the mining impacts puts Canada at risk of violating Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.”