Time to turn up the heat about selenium pollution

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Paul Samycia, owner of Elk River Guiding Company in British Columbia, and his guides and clients have caught dozens of deformed westslope cutthroat trout in the river reaches below four open-pit coal mines operated by Teck Resources.

Teck Resources contends the incidence of deformities in the cutthroat trout in the Elk River does not exceed the rates of anomalies in fish in streams not impacted by coal mine pollution.

In this case, the pollutant at issue is selenium, a naturally occurring element that can be toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms at higher concentrations.

Erin Sexton, a senior scientist at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, said the levels of selenium in the Elk River are remarkably high.

Teck Resources admits the selenium is a problem but claims its current and future water treatment facilities will improve water quality. Skeptics wonder how long these treatment facilities will operate once the mines play out.

What does this have to do with Montana?

The Elk River is a tributary to the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa. Sexton said Lake Koocanusa is, in effect, a settling pond for the selenium washing downstream from the open-pit mines, which extract metallurgical coal used in steelmaking.

Officials in British Columbia, the U.S., and the states of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Alaska have known for years about the selenium pollution.

In recent months, efforts have intensified to get British Columbia to do more and to encourage Congress to fund water quality studies for Montana, Alaska, Washington and Idaho.

A June letter to British Columbia Premier John Horgan from U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Steve Daines, R-Montana, along with senators from other impacted states, reported that the senators “remain concerned about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary watersheds that originate in B.C. and flow into our four states.”

In second quarter results posted July 24, Teck Resources reported gross profit of $1.1 billion for the period ended June 30. The company said the British Columbia government had “endorsed saturated rock fills to treat water at our steelmaking coal operations.”

Teck Resources says it is spending millions of dollars to address the selenium pollution. But is it doing enough?

Few people think so.

It’s past time for the government in British Columbia to hold Teck Resources accountable. The company should not be allowed any additional expansion of mining in the Elk River Valley until it can prove it is making significant progress in treating the water leaching out of its current mines’ waste rock piles. The company should demonstrate in tangible ways its commitment to water treatment in the long term.

Daines, Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock should protect the aquatic resources in Northwest Montana and the people who share that territory. It’s time to turn up the heat.

Sexton said the concerns are real.

“From what I have seen of the data on water quality and fish in the Elk River and Lake Koocanusa, we definitely have reason to be worried here in Montana about the immediate and long-term impacts from Teck Coal’s Elk Valley mines in B.C. and who will be held accountable,” she said.

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