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Debate over Lake Koocanusa pollution standards continues

 Libby Dam on Lake Koocanusa in northwest Montana.
Libby Dam on Lake Koocanusa in northwest Montana.

The state Department of Environmental Quality is at odds with a governor-appointed board over a rule that could limit pollution levels in a northwest Montana lake.

The Board of Environmental Review is calling into question a 2020 DEQ rule setting a new standard to rein in selenium flowing from British Columbia coal mines into the trans-boundary Lake Koocanusa. High levels of selenium have been shown to harm fish reproduction.

Last week the board sided with a Canadian mining company that petitioned for the pollution rule to get thrown out.

Board Chairman Steve Ruffatto argued that the agency erred in its methods, invalidating the rule.

"Again, it’s very clear that the statute requires the department, in my mind, to initiate new rulemaking so it’s got a proper notice and proper procedure to get there," Ruffatto said.

DEQ attorney Kirsten Bowers pointed to a new state law that stripped the board of its authority over the rulemaking process, transferring that authority solely within DEQ.

"I appreciate your sentiments, but they’re outside your jurisdiction and advisory only,” Bowers said.

Ruffatto on Monday declined to comment further about what the board’s decision will do in practice, saying the board still needs to issue its decision in writing.

DEQ told a committee of lawmakers studying the selenium issue Monday that it will undertake a public process over the next several months to support its position that the new selenium standard is in compliance with state and federal law.

Copyright 2022 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.