Lake Koocanusa Selenium
A Coal Mining Issue

Coal mining in the Elk River Valley, British Columbia has resulted in selenium being delivered to Lake Koocanusa. This is an environmental concern because increased selenium in water can impact the reproductive success of fish, and may have associated impacts on wildlife.  Currently, levels of selenium in Lake Koocanusa are not approaching levels that are thought to pose risk to human health.  Background on selenium as a water pollutant can be accessed here.

In 2013, the KRN hosted two public forums to raise public knowledge about the pollution issue, and what is being done about it. The first forum was held in Libby on June 6th, and the second in Eureka on August 14th. The meetings included speakers from Montana Department of Environmental Quality, BC Ministries of the Environment, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (Montana FWP), and Teck Resources Limited, who operates the coal mines in the headwaters of the Elk River.  A news story summarizing the meeting and issue was published by the Flathead Beacon and can be accessed here.

Teck Resources has developed a water quality plan to manage selenium flowing out of their coal mining areas.  The plan is to construct (over a period of years) several facilities to treat water leaving the mine areas.  This plan was approved by the British Columbia Ministries of the Environment in November, 2014.  The first of these facilities at Line Creek was placed into operation in early 2016.  There were some initial environmental issues with this plant not operating as designed, but according to an October 28, 2016 Teck Resources letter to the editor of the Flathead Beacon, “That facility is now successfully reducing concentrations of substances such as selenium and nitrate in the watershed, and helping improve water quality downstream.”  Information on the Teck Resources coal mine, some of their editorials, and their plan, can be accessed at their website here.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a selenium criterion to protect freshwater aquatic life in July, 2016.  This 5 micrograms per liter criterion was adopted by State of Montana.  However, recent scientific information indicates that this selenium criterion may not be protective of avian and aquatic life in and around Lake Koocanusa.  Therefore, a selenium technical subcommittee was formed out of the larger Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group. This international Working Group is chaired by regulatory agencies in Canada (British Columbia Ministry of Environment) and in the United States (Montana Department of Environmental Quality).  The goal of the Working Group is to protect the beneficial uses of Lake Koocanusa.

The first meeting of the selenium technical subcommittee was on February 4, 2016 in Helena, Montana, and the group was tasked with developing a site-specific selenium criterion that is protective of the beneficial uses of Lake Koocanusa. (Note that in British Columbia, a “criterion” is called an “objective,” but both Montana and B.C. have committed to adopt the number that is agreed upon.) 

A second meeting of the subcommittee was held in Cranbrook, B.C. on October 26, 2016.  At this meeting, the committee discussed the results of the 2015/2016 research efforts, the development of a Lake Koocanusa Selenium Conceptual Model, and next steps toward the development of a selenium criterion/objective.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality hosts a Wiki site to house information on the research being conducted on the reservoir, and progress of technical committees.  Their presentations, reports, meeting agendas, etc. can be accessed at the following website:  http://lakekoocanusaconservation.pbworks.com/w/page/100633354/FrontPage

The Kootenai River Network will continue to track this issue, and facilitate public education and awareness through updates to this web page and other communications.

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