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Pollution levels in Koocanusa more than twice the safe limit

Wildsight has expressed concern over a recent study which concluded that selenium pollution from Elk Valley coal mining flowing into Lake Koocanusa is over twice the safe amount in some places.

According to the study from the U.S. Geological Survey, selenium levels have been seen as high as 2.5 parts per billion, while a safe limit would be around one part per billion.

Teck’s mines in the Elk Valley are the source of most of the pollution, according to  Wildsight and the five-year study.

Selenium is an element found in rocks around coal, and it gets into the water by leaching off from waste-rock from mining operations.

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“Since 1984, selenium concentrations in the Elk River measured at a station 2.2 miles above its discharge into Lake Koocanusa at Highway 93 show a continuing increase as mines have expanded,” said the U.S. Geological Survey’s Study. “Selenium loads were estimated to increase by an average of 376 kilograms per year, or 19.7 percent per year, with planned mine expansions and new mines adding to that trend in the future.”

Wildsight has expressed concern over the detrimental impacts high levels could have on the fish population in the lake and in turn, animals that eat the fish, including humans.

“The main concern with selenium is reproduction for fish. Selenium builds up in the food chain, and it builds up in the bodies of fishes, especially in their ovaries,” said Lars Sander-Green, mining coordinator for Wildsight. “That can cause either birth defects in their offspring. Selenium could also be a concern for people who are eating a lot of fish out of the reservoir.”

Among the species of fish under threat from the increased pollution levels is the endangered white sturgeon that live in the region’s waterways.

B.C. does have a legal limit of the allowable amount of selenium content in waterways. However, Wildsight said infractions are not looked at close enough.

“The Elk Valley Water Quality Plan limit is two parts per billion, but really, B.C. doesn’t enforce The Elk Valley Water Quality Plan. They don’t enforce it Lake Koocanusa. They also don’t enforce it in the Fording River, where we saw 93% of adult westslope cutthroat trout disappear in a couple of years. B.C. seems pretty willing to let Teck get away with whatever they want to do,” said Sander-Green.

According to Wildsight, the Montana government has plans to set a one part per billion limit at the border by the end of the year, with hopes of B.C. doing the same.

Teck is working on water treatment facilities, but Sander-Green said this preventative measure is not enough.

“Obviously Teck isn’t going to be operating these water treatment plants 500 years into the future, especially since they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these plants already,” explained Sander-Green. “We’re really worried about what B.C. and Teck are planning for the long term with this. So far we haven’t really seen anything, it’s like everyone is burning their head in the sand and hoping the problem goes away.”

Sander-Green suggested water-tight dumps where waste-rock could be contained might be a good solution. He added that this idea was considered, but no action has been taken on it yet.

Wildsight said the completion of the proposed Castle Mountain expansion would add even more pollution into the waterways.

“Teck plans to almost double the amount of selenium-leaching waste rock in the next 20 years, just from mining that is already approved,” said Sander-Green, “If Castle is approved too, we could see long-term selenium pollution in Lake Koocanusa at five times the safe limit or even higher.”

The pollution from the mines also has a much wider reach than just Koocanusa.

“People in the U.S. are worried about it, downstream along the Kootenay River. The pollution is flowing down there, then it flows back to Canada, into Creston and then into Kootenay Lake,” Sander-Green said to “We need to be looking forward to the future because we’re seeing significantly high selenium levels in the Kootenay River and Kootenay Lake.”

Sander-Green is hopeful that the federal government’s assessment will see the concerns that are being voiced in the American study and by Wildsight.

“We really encourage people to be involved in the environmental assessment of this Castle expansion because it’s such a huge project. Whether it’s a provincial assessment, a federal assessment or both, it’s really important that people are heard in that process,” said Sander-Green.

More: Elkford Opposed to Teck Coal Licence Applications (March 11, 2020)

More: Elk Valley Mayors React to Teck’s Castle Project (February 11, 2020)

More: Teck Proposing Extension of Fording River Operations (February 10, 2020)

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