WHITEFISH — A study by University of Montana researchers shows that pollutants leaching into the heavily mined Elk River drainage in southeastern British Columbia have reached alarming levels, particularly as a metal-like element called selenium threatens critical fish habitat in Canada, as well as downstream in Montana.
The study was commissioned by Glacier National Park and carried out by Ric Hauer, a professor of limnology, and Erin Sexton, a research scientist, both at the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana.
Hauer gathered data on the Elk River as part of a broader study comparing the watershed to the nearby Flathead River, which flows into Montana and Glacier National Park. The Flathead watershed is largely pristine, and researchers used it as a baseline when turning to the nearby Elk River to compare the environmental effects of open-pit coal mining.
There are five coal mines in the Elk River Valley that are causing toxic pollution, and four of the coal mines have launched expansion proposals that are in the project review stage. A new coal mine proposal and three exploration projects are also under way.
“The science is clear: Selenium from the mines has polluted the river to levels known to be dangerous to fish,” said John Bergenske, executive director of Wildsight, a B.C. conservation group. “The selenium bio-accumulates and could lead to fish population collapse because it affects reproductive organs in fish. Eating them could also affect human health.”
The Elk River joins the Kootenai River at Lake Koocanusa, and officials with the B.C. Ministry of Environment say they are developing a water quality monitoring program for Lake Koocanusa, led by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Other partners include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The development in the Elk River Valley has prompted both of Montana’s U.S. senators and a coalition of tribes to call for international scrutiny of the mines and their downstream impacts in Montana.
“Drainage from the Elk Valley mines present serious risks to the Kootenai Basin water quality and valued trout fisheries,” U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, D-Mont., wrote in a letter to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
A separate joint letter from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Ktunaxa Nation and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho asked Clinton to refer the matter of impaired water quality in the Elk and Kootenai river basins to the International Joint Commission.
Chris Stannell, a spokesman for Teck Resources Ltd., which operates the five coal mines in the Elk Valley, said a water quality management program is in place, and Teck is constructing a water treatment plant at its Line Creek operation.
“We take environmental issues very seriously,” Stannell stated in an email. “That is why we are taking action through our valleywide Selenium Management Action Plan, which is one of the largest water quality management programs of its kind in the world. The plan outlines significant measures, based on extensive scientific research, to protect aquatic health while supporting sustainable mining activities in the Elk Valley.”
Over the next five years, Teck will invest up to $600 million in water diversion and treatment facilities, aquatic-monitoring programs, and research and development to improve selenium management, he said.
The UM researchers tested above and below mines and used the pristine water quality of the nearby Flathead River to determine background levels and ascertain what aquatic life would normally be present in the Elk River were it not so polluted.
Compared to the Flathead River, the UM study found that nitrogen levels in the Elk River were 1,000 times greater, while sulphate levels were 40-50 times greater, and selenium levels were seven to 10 times higher. In Michelle Creek, a tributary of the Elk River, selenium levels were 57 times higher.
The pollution from the mines is also killing off smaller organisms like caddis flies, a vital part of the food chain. The UM study states that “all coal mining sites had increased nitrogen loading, increased sulfate loading, increased selenium loading, higher algal production as a result of increased nitrogen loading, and a decrease in macroinvertebrate diversity and abundance particularly of species sensitive to pollution.”
Clint Muhlfeld, an aquatic ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Glacier National Park field office, said the transboundary Kootenai River Basin contains critical habitat for the endangered bull trout, the westslope cutthroat and the endangered white sturgeon below Libby Dam. Migratory bull trout from Lake Koocanusa migrate up the Elk River and spawn in the Wigwam River, where juveniles rear before moving back downstream into the Elk River and Lake Koocanusa, where they grow to maturity. He said redds, or spawning nests, in the Wigwam can exceed 2,000.
“It is an amazing watershed,” he said. “We already know that this large-scale open-pit coal mining is degrading water quality, fisheries and aquatic life, and these additional proposed coal mine field expansions are posing unprecedented risk to aquatic resources in the Kootenai River Basin.”
Trevor Selch, fisheries pollution biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said he’ll begin a fish monitoring study in April, with an eye toward elevated levels of selenium in bull trout, burbot, Kokanee salmon and longnose suckers