East Kootenay conservationists have teamed with their B.C. counterparts and U.S. scientists to monitor water quality in a transboundary waterway.
On October 4, representatives from Wildsight, Sierra Club BC, Headwaters Montana and the University of Montana (UM) travelled to Lake Koocanusa southwest of Fernie to launch the water sampling program and take their first grab sample.
The reservoir forms north of the Libby Dam in northwestern Montana, reaching 77km to the Canada-United States border and extending 68km into British Columbia.
Every month, the groups will collect a water sample to be tested at UM’s Flathead Lake Biological Station for metals and nutrients stemming from coal mines operated by Teck Coal upstream.
The Koocanusa site is one of seven order stations established under Permit 107517, where Teck must meet Site Performance Objectives for selenium, nitrate, cadmium and sulphate.
Wildsight’s Science and Communications Analyst Lars Sander-Green said the mining company doesn’t collect data at Lake Koocanusa during winter due to safety concerns but he believes there is a way to do it safely.
“Teck is coming up against and over a lot of the limits in their permits that allow them to mine and we’re pretty concerned that they’re not going to be able to meet those permits in the long term,” he said.
“There’s definitely a move afoot to revise some of those permit conditions and we’re pretty worried that the B.C. Government is just going to move the goal posts here, and make it basically easier for Teck if they can’t meet their permit conditions, which of course is not protective of the environment.”
While the water samples will be tested for a number of contaminants, the main concern for Wildsight is selenium, which is increasing across the watershed.
Selenium is an essential trace element necessary for cellular function in many organisms, however, excessive amounts may result in toxic effects such as deformities and increased mortality in fish populations.
“The limit in Teck’s permit is two micrograms per litre and we want to see if they’re exceeding that in the winter, we suspect that they may be,” said Sander-Green.
“They exceeded it in April of this year and typically the numbers are higher in January, February and March because there’s less water coming down, so it’s basically less diluted.
“It’s also really important because Lake Koocanusa is a reservoir that we share with our American neighbours and down in Montana they’re also very concerned about the selenium levels, and the effects on the environment and the ecosystems in the whole lake.”
Wildsight is yet to find funding for the water sampling program but Sander-Green said costs are minor. The data the groups collect will be made public and provided to the government and Teck.
Sander-Green said it’s not unusual for environmental groups to collect their own data to fill a gap left by industry or government.
“We hope that they’ll (Teck) take it to heart that this is a real concern and they’re going to figure out a way with the Province of British Columbia to make sure that they’re testing the water here, make sure that we’re keeping the fish safe, and make sure that we’re keeping our water clean and being good neighbours to our American friends who share this water body,” he said.
The pollution of shared waterways has strained relations between the two countries with the U.S. Department of State tabling the issue at a bilateral meeting with Global Affairs Canada in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
In June, International Joint Commission U.S. Section Chair Lana Pollack and U.S. Commissioner Rich Moy penned a letter criticizing Canada’s inaction on rising selenium levels in the Elk River-Lake Koocanusa-Kootenai River watersheds, which they believe has implications for the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
Headwaters Montana Executive Director Dave Hadden hopes the sampling program at Lake Koocanusa will be a stepping stone to a much larger study funded by the U.S. federal government.
According to Hadden, $2.5 million has been allocated in the 2019 appropriations to address mining pollution in shared waterways.
“We have selenium pollution coming across the border, we don’t have it as bad as the people in the Elk Valley, but we have a situation that is getting worse and it’s reaching thresholds that aren’t acceptable in the United States,” said Hadden.
“We feel if we can bring attention to this issue, that we can find research money in order to really do some detailed studies of the effects of the selenium pollution on the aquatic life in the Koocanusa reservoir and Kootenai River.
“We know the mines in the Elk Valley are extremely important economically but we need to have a solution that doesn’t further damage the water reservoir or the river, or the values that are there.”
Sierra Club BC Climate and Conservation Campaigner Mark Worthing travelled from Vancouver Island for the launch of the water sampling program.
He believes the public is being “left in the shadows” on water quality in Lake Koocanusa and deserves more accountability from Teck, and the Province.
“The government keeps widening the goal posts for selenium levels and those compliance points, and I think we can’t be approving any new mines or mine expansions, or anything like that while we have this crisis in the water,” he said.
Worthing acknowledged Teck’s efforts to address water quality, which include up to $900 million allocated over five years to building water treatment facilities in the Elk Valley.
“All the good efforts they’ve put in are just dwarfed by the amount of damage they cause,” he said.
“Until they can actually not use experimental technology to deal with the problem they’re creating, I’d rather they just not create the problem.”
Experienced scientist onboard water sampling program
Reaching into the still waters of Lake Koocanusa from her canoe, Montana scientist Erin Sexton draws a water sample through her plastic syringe, emptying it into a container, which is then meticulously labelled and packaged for scientific analysis.
The grab sample has been taken at one of Teck Coal’s seven order stations in the Elk River-Lake Koocanusa watershed, established under Permit 107517 to monitor water quality.
It will be tested for mining pollutants, such as selenium, at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station before the results are shared with Teck, the government and wider public.
Sexton said Lake Koocanusa is a complex system and not a lot is known about the “mixing” of the reservoir.
“That all really matters when you try to figure out how contaminants coming into the reservoir – they’re basically flushing into the reservoir from the river – how are those contaminants going to behave in the reservoir?” she said.
“Are they going to stay in the water column and that’s where fish take them up? Are they going to settle and are the bottom feeders going to take them up and then, with something like selenium, which bioaccumulates, we need to understand how selenium and those contaminants are going to work in the system.”
Sexton is experienced at testing for metals and nutrients associated with mining activity, having studied the Elk and Flathead rivers for six years.
She is particularly interested in selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa during the winter months when water flow is low.
“That’s a data gap right now,” she said. “If I was going to guess or make a hypothesis about what we might find it’s probably that the contaminant levels will be higher over the winter months, which means just more selenium overall in the system to be taken up by the life in the reservoir.”
From 2005 to 2011, Sexton worked in the Elk River while investigating the potential impacts of a mine proposed in the nearby Flathead River.
She and her colleagues conducted a multi-tiered study that looked at water quality, algae, macroinvertebrates and fish in both watersheds, and were shocked by the results for the Elk Valley.
“We found significantly elevated levels of selenium, nitrates and sulphates downstream of the mines,” said Sexton.
She said upstream of the mines, selenium levels were between 0.01-0.02 micrograms per litre while downstream, they were as high as 70 micrograms per litre.
“The nitrates were also pretty alarming, they were 1000-2000 times higher downstream of the mines than they were above the mines,” she said.
Sexton also found species of macroinvertebrates, such as mayflies, were being lost downstream of Elk Valley mines, as well as algae, with 72 species of algae recorded in the Flathead compared to only 12 in the Elk.
“The levels were significantly different,” she said.
“A lot of times people will say that’s just background levels of those elements in the system because selenium and cadmium, and barium and all those things are in the rock and they’re released when you mine, so you would expect to find them at really low levels in the water. But the levels you’re seeing in the Elk are definitely out of the range of normal.”
U.S. agencies have been testing water quality in the Koocanusa reservoir for some time and Sexton said there is “a very clear trend” of increasing selenium in fish tissue across all species.
“That’s really concerning when currently there isn’t any decrease in the levels of contaminants coming into the reservoir, so if it’s on an upward trend and there’s no mitigation upriver, it’s just going to continue to go up,” she said.
Sexton was not assured by news the West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Facility (AWTF) is back online.
Earlier this month, Teck announced the restart and recommissioning of the plant, which is designed to remove selenium and nitrate from mine-affected water.
Once the AWTF reaches design capacity in late December, it will treat up to 7.5 million litres of water per day, reducing selenium concentrations by about 96 per cent and nitrate concentrations by more than 99 per cent.
Sexton said this is a lower volume of water than originally promised.
“The treatment plant has had a huge amount of issues over time, they’re several years behind schedule in constructing all their treatment plans so we’re way behind the eight ball already,” she said.
“We can’t count on Teck to pay for active water treatment for the hundreds of years that contaminants are going to be draining into the watershed.”