B.C. stalls on Koocanusa selenium pollution limit

Photo: Tony Webster

Even though Lake Koocanusa is more than a hundred kilometres downstream of Teck’s coal mines in the Rocky Mountains, selenium pollution flowing from the mines is a real danger to fish who call the reservoir home. The still waters of the 145km long reservoir that runs from B.C. into Montana allow even low concentrations of selenium to build up in the food web and ultimately in the eggs of fish, putting them at risk of birth defects and even complete reproductive failure.

For more than five years, B.C. and Montana have been working together to find a safe limit for selenium pollution in Lake Koocanusa, building a scientific consensus with experts on both sides of the border. This summer, those experts reached their conclusions based on a bio-accumulation model that looks at every step in the food chain. Everyone, including B.C.’s scientists, agreed that selenium needed to be limited to under 1 part per billion to keep fish safe, with a solid consensus that 0.8 parts per billion is the right limit for Koocanusa.

But now, even though B.C. committed to set a shared selenium limit for Koocanusa this year, it looks like the Province is trying to stall or even back away from the science. While Montana is pushing ahead to adopt the selenium limit by the end of the year, it’s unclear when, if ever, the Province will adopt the shared limit.

That’s not just bad news for fish, who have already been found with dangerous levels of selenium in their bodies. It puts our province in direct conflict with our neighbours to the south and threatens to wipe out five years of cooperation.

The Montana government plans to adopt the limit by the end of the year. B.C., meanwhile, has done nothing publicly other than put out a brief press release questioning the scientific basis of the proposed limit.

Wildsight’s winter water sampling on a frozen Lake Koocanusa

Good science makes good neighbours

Over five years of data collection in Lake Koocanusa, scientists tested for selenium in many species of fish, water, insects, and algae. By following selenium as it moves through the food chain, their peer-reviewed model predicts how much selenium will end up in fish based on the concentration of selenium in the lake.

Wildsight has been observing this scientific process for the last five years and we’ve been impressed. The amount of data and the quality of the scientific modelling for this selenium limit in Lake Koocanusa is far better than what we’ve seen in B.C. for Teck’s existing selenium limits in the Elk Valley.

Even B.C.’s own scientists agreed that the pollution limit should be 0.8 or 0.9 parts per billion to keep fish safe. Is B.C. is stalling because Teck asked them to, rather than because of any genuine scientific concerns?

Teck’s Fording River mine seen from Castle Mountain, which could soon be destroyed.

Pollution is already above the limit

Selenium pollution in Lake Koocanusa has been increasing for decades, with levels in the Canadian part of Lake Koocanusa at times reaching over 2.5 parts per billion, while the current average level over the whole reservoir is approximately 1 part per billion. It’s hard to believe, but even after decades of work on the selenium problem, B.C. still doesn’t have an enforceable limit for selenium in Lake Koocanusa. Teck has a target to keep selenium below 2 parts per billion, but that limit isn’t enforceable—and selenium levels have already climbed above it.

Teck’s proposed Castle mine would see coal mining continue until about 2060. The company plans to continue using mountain-top removal mining techniques for Castle that leave behind massive piles of waste rock that are expected to leach selenium into the environment for many centuries. Castle alone could add more selenium to Koocanusa than the safe limit.

All of Teck’s current mines and planned expansions would increase selenium levels to more than five times the limit. While water treatment may reduce selenium in the short term, once mining ends and Teck isn’t spending roughly one hundred million dollars every year to treat the many polluted rivers and creeks of the Elk Valley, selenium levels will bounce right back up.

With major environmental assessments for Teck’s Castle mine and North Coal’s mine in the works, it’s crucial that B.C. puts in place a strong, safe selenium limit for Lake Koocanusa that puts everyone on the same page in the environmental assessment process.

White sturgeon, an ancient fish, now endangered

Endangered sturgeon downstream

Fish in Lake Koocanusa aren’t the only ones in danger. Downstream of Libby Dam at the south end of Koocanusa, the Kootenay River flows through Idaho, Montana and back into B.C. at Creston, emptying into Kootenay Lake. White sturgeon, huge fish that can live over 100 years, make their home in Kootenay Lake and the Kootenay River, travelling between the U.S. and Canada. These ancient giants have been struggling to reproduce ever since Libby Dam changed flow patterns in the river downstream, holding back the water they need to create their spawning beds.

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, part of the people we know as Ktunaxa in Canada, have been working for years at their hatchery to help the Kootenay white sturgeon survive. But now, increasing selenium levels in sturgeon have added another threat to their ability to reproduce. White sturgeon are the most sensitive fish species to selenium pollution known to science.

So it’s not just fish in Koocanusa that need a safe pollution limit, it’s the sturgeon downstream who live in the polluted water flowing out of the reservoir who need this pollution limit too.

It’s time for B.C. to act

Selenium is a growing problem in Lake Koocanusa and pollution levels are already in the danger zone, so we don’t have any more time to wait. Montana plans to adopt a safe pollution limit for Koocanusa by the end of the year. As soon as this election is over, B.C. must adopt and enforce a selenium pollution limit in Koocanusa that keeps fish in the lake—and downstream as far as Kootenay Lake—safe.