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Montana Proposes New Rules To Stem Canadian Coal Mine Pollution

Montana environmental regulators took the first step last week to tighten pollution rules for toxins flowing into Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. The new rules are aimed at stemming pollution coming from British Columbia coal mines.

State officials said pollution from coal mines along British Columbia’s Elk River has flowed south for decades, going through Lake Koocanusa along the Montana-Canada border and subsequently into the Kootenai River.

“And we have arrived at that point before seeing the substantial fisheries impacts that are occurring upstream,” Mya Kelley said.

Kelley is with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and spoke during Thursday’s meeting, where state officials were considering new rules for the amount of selenium allowed in the area’s water.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element, but unhealthy levels of it can seep into rivers and streams during mining. It can cause reproductive issues in fish species and eventually lead to large declines in fish populations.

On Thursday, the Montana Board of Environmental Review voted to start the public process that could set the new limit on selenium in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. The limit would be .8 micrograms per liter - roughly two to four times more restrictive than the federal rules now in place.

Regulation on this side of the border could impact Teck Resources, owner of the four B.C. coal mines along the Elk River.

Several U.S. tribal, environmental and research stakeholders commented in support of the proposed rules. But Eureka state Sen. Mike Cuffe asked the board to hold off on initiating the rule-making process, saying Teck Resources has made strides toward reducing the selenium pollution coming from its mines.

“Teck has been criticized a lot over the years, and I’m sure as heck not here to protect Teck,” Cuff said. “I live downstream. My house is only a few miles from the mouth of the Elk River. But I’m also about being fair and being protective as we need to be, but not overprotective.”

A DEQ report recorded that water samples collected from the Elk River show the selenium levels in recent years are four times higher than B.C.’s current guideline. Samples from Lake Koocanusa between 2012 and 2020 show the average selenium level is 1 microgram per liter, slightly above Montana’s proposed standard.

Billings Attorney Vicky Marcus, who is representing Teck, said that data isn’t enough to justify new rules on selenium limits.

“No other Montana water-quality standard-setting process has been premised on a single corporation’s operation, let alone a corporation that operates on the other side of an international border and is wholly regulated by a foreign government,” he said.

The Montana DEQ and its provincial counterpart have been in talks for six years about how they could set a new standard for selenium pollution for Lake Koocanusa together. Without a similar standard set by B.C, Montana’s change could not directly require Teck Resources to reduce the selenium leaching into the Elk River.

A DEQ spokesperson said the agency expects B.C. to mirror Montana’s proposed standard by the end of the year. B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development declined to comment, citing Canada’s forthcoming elections.

A standard in Montana would be the first step toward reining in selenium pollution from B.C. mines, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 8 Senior Water Policy Advisor Ayn Schmit.

“And finally I’d like to note a protective water quality standard is the best tool we have to assure that water flowing across the boundary from Canada is not quote ‘polluted on either side to the injury of health or property,’ end quote, in the U.S. as required by article four of the Boundary Waters Treaty,” Schmit said.

A draft of copy of the rule proposal says public comment will run through Nov. 23. That date could shift depending on when the state publishes the official notice.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled EPA Region 8 Senior Water Policy Advisor Ayn Schmit's last name. 

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Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.