News Type: State, Regional, Federal Source: The Western News
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Upcoming discussions of agreements between the U.S. and Canada — as well as between Montana and British Columbia — and continued increases in contamination levels of water flowing into Montana from the Elk River watershed have brought a spotlight back onto concerns over the ongoing environmental impact on northwest Montana of British Columbia coal mining.

On March 22, Kootenai Valley Trout Unlimited presented a letter to the Lincoln County Commission requesting it to pass a resolution in support of the U.S. State Department working toward a legally binding agreement with the Canadian federal government that would address contamination concerns.

Currently, there is only a 2010 memorandum of understanding between British Columbia and Montana regarding cooperation on environmental protection, climate action and energy.

There is also a U.S.-Canada treaty signed in 1910 between the U.S. and the UK that addresses pollution of shared waterways, but it only speaks to generalities of “injury of health or property” as violations of the treaty.

On April 23, a U.S. State Department-convened working group is scheduled to present findings on the limitations of the British Columbia-Montana memorandum to Global Affairs Canada — Canada’s equivalent to the State Department — in Washington, D.C.

The hope of groups such as Trout Unlimited is that the two governments will be able to create a binding agreement to replace the memorandum.

The Trout Unlimited letter outlines things they would like to result from such an agreement, including independent assessments and studies, “financial assurances” and an arbitration process for claims resulting from mine-related contamination.


Coal mining in the Elk River area just north of the U.S. border with Canada has been going on for over 100 years, but in 2013 the B.C. Ministry of the Environment issued a ministerial order to Teck Coal Limited identifying selenium, cadmium, nitrate and sulphate as contaminants of concern in the Elk Valley.

The order required Teck to establish a technical advisory committee and to create a water management plan for the Elk Valley, an area identified as running from the headwaters of the Elk River to the U.S. border.

In July 2014, Teck submitted the plan to the ministry for approval.

University of Montana Senior Research Scientist Erin Sexton — who, with Professor of Systems Ecology Ric Hauer, first demonstrated the effect of selenium contamination on Montana wildlife — was involved in creating that plan, she said.

“They basically got permission for the water quality trends to continue to go in the wrong direction while they try to figure out this problem,” she said.

Sexton said that Teck is not ignoring the problem, but that she and others involved in the creation of the plan felt that Teck was able to limit the options it considered based on economics.

“I think Teck has every intent, if they’re able, of implementing a longer term solution, but the problem is that when the Elk Valley Water Plan was approved, they made choices at the very front end of those meetings that basically threw out certain options in the short term because they deemed them too expensive,” she said.

In the British Columbia process, economic and environmental feasibility are weighed equally, she said.

Sextin said that the key problem is not whether Teck is doing something, or even whether the technologies it is exploring might work. The problem lies with the British Columbia process and that the provincial government allowed Teck to move forward with current and expanded operations without proving first that their solution would work.

“They had a really important point in time when they could have said, ‘OK, we’re going to press pause, we’re not going to approve the expansion of these mines, and we’re going to wait until you guys demonstrate the technology to mitigate,’” she said.

There is no dispute among parties that selenium contamination in particular is still a concern.

However, while Montana has a limit on selenium in lakes and rivers of 5 micrograms per liter (.005 mg/l), and Teck’s plan addresses attempts to meet the British Columbia limit of 2 micrograms, the U.S. EPA limit of 1.5 micrograms comes closer to what some studies indicate is needed, Sextin said.

Selenium contamination is further complicated by the fact impact based on concentration are still being studied.

Sexton said that in places such as Lake Kookanusa where the water isn’t flowing through quickly, much lower levels may produce the same detrimental effects — such as deformation and reproduction interference and potential collapse — as would higher levels in the river.

In addition, while Teck’s approaches have yet to prove they can prevent increases in contamination or keep contamination beneath British Columbia’s mandates, the contamination from Teck’s facilities is accounting for the entire permitted “load” on the Elk Valley watershed, she said.

As a result, if another company with a proven technology were to try to open up a mine in the same watershed, they could potentially be kept from starting operation if they were not allowed to add to the load, she said.

Tecnical solutions

In the Elk Valley plan, Teck notes that part of the reason construction of their active water treatment plants are spaced out over several years is to allow things learned from earlier plants to be implemented in new plants as they are built.

The Trout Unlimited letter echoes concerns from Hauer about the ability of the water treatment plants to address the long term leaching of selenium into the watershed, which is likely to long outlast any mining operations if nothing changes.

In the plan, Teck acknowledges that water treatment is not a permanent solution, even suggesting that not all of the plants may be built if a long term solution is determined in the interim.

A claim made by Hauer at a March 14 presentation and echoed in the Trout Unlimited letter is that the selenium contamination is a geologic problem, and the active water treatment is a chemical solution.

According to the Elk Valley plan, Teck’s plants use bacteria to lock nitrates and selenium into new compounds in a biological process that shares similarities with municipal sewage treatment plants.

In the Elk Valley plan, one of the reasons this is noted as preferred is because, unlike a membrane filter, it only removes the contaminants, leaving minerals and nutrients needed in the ecosystem intact in the water.

One of the plants has been operating at limited capacity since it was shut down for a time after an October 2014 unintentional release of nitrite, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and phosphorous, according to Teck. The incident led to the recorded deaths of fish in the watershed and a $1.4 million fine under the Canadian Fisheries Act.

It was the company’s fourth violation of the act, according to the Canadian Environmental Offenders Registry.

In 2016, the plant was shut down again when it was determined that the treatment was creating a compound from the selenium that was actually more hazardous to wildlife, according to Sextin.

According to statements on their website, Teck has dealt with the problems that led to both incidents, and the plant is operating at this time.

Future plans

Chris Stannell, a senior communications specialist with Teck, said that the company expects to invest between $850 and $900 million between 2018 and 2022 into water treatment. In the second quarter of 2018, they will break ground on a second plant, which will be updated to avoid problems the first plant encountered.

Teck is also continuing research and development on ways to improve existing processes and piloting new ones, he said.

As part of research and development, In 2017 Teck opened their first full-scale saturated fill project, Stannell said by email.

If the project is successful, Teck will be the first company in the world to have explored and implemented the approach.

According to a video from Teck explaining saturated fill, waste rock is returned to the coal pits left after mining and the rock material is allowed to saturate with water. Similar to the biological process in Teck’s treatment plants, bacteria within the rock pile without access to oxygen to produce carbon dioxide instead create compounds from nitrates and selenium as part of their regular metabolic process.

The resulting compounds are not soluble, and should not be able to leach into groundwater, according to a spokesman in the video.

“The saturated fill project at Elkview Operations has found that approximately 90% of selenium and nitrate is removed from the water through these natural processes,” Stannell said.

“While both water treatment facilities and saturated fills use a biological treatment process, there are many potential benefits to saturated fills, including shorter schedule for design and construction, reduced complexity, and no leftover materials from the treatment process requiring storage,” he said.

Stannell said saturated fill is still under development.

“We are also continuing to invest in a major (research and development) program to develop and evaluate alternative treatment and mitigation options with the goal of improving the effectiveness of our work to protect and improve water quality” he said.