How can one lake have two different water pollution limits?

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Photo: Spend A Day Touring

Montana sets selenium pollution limit for Koocanusa, while BC stalls


Late last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved a new, lower limit for selenium pollution limit in Lake Koocanusa in Montana based on six years of study from a group of scientists on both sides of the border. The evidence is in: to keep fish safe, we need to reduce the amount of selenium flowing down the Elk River into Lake Koocanusa. But B.C., even though they committed to a shared limit with Montana, has been stalling since September on putting a matching limit in place for the Canadian side of Lake Koocanusa.

How can one lake have two different water pollution limits? In Montana, there is a legal limit of 0.8 parts per billion (ppb). In B.C., we still have an unenforceable objective of 2 parts per billion, way more than scientists tell us is safe for fish. What’s worse is even if B.C. does stop stalling and lower our own selenium pollution objective for Lake Koocanusa, it will only be a water quality objective — an unenforceable target, not a real limit.With selenium already as high as 2.5 parts per billion in the most polluted part of Koocanusa and plenty of data to show fish have dangerous levels of selenium building up in their ovaries, we’re going to need a lot more than an unenforceable suggestion.

USGS has installed an automatic water sampler at the border to measure daily selenium pollution levels.

The solution is to go back to basics. Canada and the U.S. have a treaty going back all the way to 1909 that prohibits either country from polluting waterways in the other country. It’s pretty clear that Canada, by allowing so much selenium pollution to flow into Lake Koocanusa, is violating the treaty. Under the treaty, our two countries set up the International Joint Commission to work out any problems that come up.

The Commission has helped solve water pollution and other water issues across the border from one end of our border to the other, but in order for the Commission to get involved, both countries must agree to ask them to do so. The U.S., understandably, would be happy to see the Commission come in and try to sort out this mess. The Ktunaxa Nation and the U.S. Tribes of the Ktunaxa/Kootenai people have asked the Commission to step in, as have Wildsight and many others. The BC government has failed to take action for many years. The province has let this problem get out of control and they don’t have a realistic long-term plan to fix it. 

The federal government has responsibilities under the Boundary Waters Treaty. It’s time for them to call in the International Joint Commission, so that the long process of figuring out how to clean up the centuries of water pollution we’re facing from the Elk Valley coal mines can get started.

With four more new mines in the environmental assessment process in the Elk Valley that could add a lot more water pollution to the Elk River and Lake Koocanusa over the coming decades, we don’t have any time to waste! It’s not hard to do that math. We have one lake with a hard limit of 0.8 parts per billion on one side and an unenforceable target of 2 ppb on the other side and pollution already above both the limit and the target. It’s time for an international solution through the Boundary Waters Treaty.

Sampling selenium pollution levels in Lake Koocanusa

Setting a selenium pollution limit for Lake Koocanusa isn’t just about protecting fish. If Ktunaxa people ate fish at their culturally preferred rate from Lake Koocanusa, they’d be in danger of selinosis — of having too much selenium build up in their bodies with dangerous effects on their health.

And the selenium limit for Lake Koocanusa isn’t just about protecting this body of water that spans two countries. Downstream, in the Kootenai River, burbot and other fish species have been found with concerning levels of selenium in their bodies, even into Idaho. There hasn’t been much research in Canada yet, but the data suggests we should be worried about selenium in fish in the Kootenay River when it returns to B.C. at Creston and then flows into Kootenay Lake. Of course, less selenium pollution in Lake Koocanusa means less selenium pollution upstream too, which would be very good news for the trout in the Fording and Elk Rivers.

Burbot are a sensitive species, at risk from selenium pollution even when water concentrations are low.

The real problem is that B.C. doesn’t have a long term plan for the water pollution flowing from Teck’s Elk Valley coal mines. Water treatment might help in the short term (though so far Teck isn’t treating enough water to make a significant difference), but selenium is going to leach from the waste rock dumps at these mines for centuries, well past the time when Teck and their expensive water treatment will leave the Elk Valley. What happens then? If nothing changes, we’ll see more pollution than we’ve ever seen in Lake Koocanusa and the entire watershed.

That’s where the International Joint Commission comes in. We need a neutral body to help us sort the promises from the reality, and to look at the selenium pollution crisis through a long-term lens. B.C. has shown, again and again, that they won’t control Teck. It’s time for Canada to invite the Commission to help us deal with this disaster, now and for future generations.