A beaver on the Elk River, summer 2017. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Experts discuss selenium in cross-border waterways

On October 16, The Kootenai River Network organized two public information sessions in Kalispell and Eureka in regards to the health of the Kootenai River watershed in northwestern Montana and southeastern B.C. The topics discussed pertained to the challenges agencies face when establishing selenium limits across jurisdictional boundaries and an international border.

On October 16, The Kootenai River Network organized two public information sessions in Kalispell and Eureka in regards to the health of the Kootenai River watershed in northwestern Montana and southeastern B.C. The topics discussed pertained to the challenges agencies face when establishing selenium limits across jurisdictional boundaries and an international border.

Kootenai River Network president Jim Dunnigan, US Army Corps of Engineers representative Greg Hoffman, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) representative Erin Sexton, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho representative Genny Hoyle, Teck Resources Limited representative Christian Baxter and Department of Fish, Wildlife and Park (FWP) representative Trevor Selch were present at the meeting in Kalispell. Together, with insight from the public, they strove to establish a common ground on what is acceptable.

Selenium is a naturally occurring heavy metal that is exposed via open pit coal mining.

Teck Resources Limited currently operates five open pit coal mines in British Columbia. The company says it’s addressing selenium waste through the use of active water treatment sites. On top of the treatment plants currently operating, they say they have more planned for the future.

Myla Kelly with Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) explained that the DEQ’s water quality standard for selenium has not been exceeded in any state waterway. She believes that the best approach in adopting water quality standards for selenium is to use a site-specific approach. Speaking to the area surrounding Lake Koocanusa and the Elk River, which hugs the U.S.-Canadian border, she sees their selenium and nitrate levels trending upward. According to the DEQ, Lake Koocanusa is considered threatened.

She went on to explain that fish with facial and gill deformities have been found north of the American border. Speaking to the selenium guidelines set by some federal and Canadian agencies, Lake Koocanusa exceeds these.

The Ktunaxa Nation, as well as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe say that they have received nothing but silence in return to letters sent to provincial agencies. The Kooteani Tribe of Idaho reiterated this, saying that letters to state agencies have also gone unanswered.

The British Columbia Ministry of Environment was not present at the meeting.

Wildsight Southern Rockies Program Manager, Ryland Nelson, was also present at these meetings, and believes they served as good engagement sessions for the public to learn about the issues with selenium.

He noted that representatives from the provincial government were, “noticeably absent”.

“Luckily, the State of Montana and the US EPA are stepping up and monitoring the impacts [of selenium] on fish and other aquatic life,” said Nelson in an emailed response.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency released new selenium guidelines last year. The State Department of Environmental Quality is considering whether to adopt those new, more stringent standards. Both the Canadian government and Province of British Columbia have selenium guidelines that are different from the EPA’s or Montana’s.

“This absence of leadership on this issue by the B.C. and Canadian governments further emphasized the Ktunaxa Nation’s call for a binational commission with the U.S., with the participation of all levels of government, to address selenium and other water quality issues,” said Nelson, who also believes we need to get all levels of government to the table to address the long-term selenium pollution issue.

“We’re looking at centuries of water pollution and we desperately need some leadership from our governments,” he said.

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