MISSOULA – As Teck Resources hopes to expand its mountaintop-removal coal mining in British Columbia, water quality monitors in Canada and the United States warn the company’s existing mines already cause significant ecological damage.
In 2019, the company’s research revealed that more than 90% of the cutthroat trout population had vanished in a 37-mile reach of the Upper Fording River near its mines around Sparwood, British Columbia.
On March 26, Teck pleaded guilty to two counts of illegally discharging selenium and other pollutants into the watershed and paid a $60 million fine – the largest of its kind in Canadian history.
Teck officials maintain the fine pertained to water quality problems it had in 2012, and that the judgment made “no reference to or connection with the 2019 fish population survey or any other reference to specific regional impacts on fish populations.”
Teck spokesperson Dale Steeves said the 2019 incident was under study but doubted that selenium was the primary cause.
“(I)t is more likely the fish population decline occurred from a number of factors that include extremely low temperatures, low flows and lack of access to overwintering habitat,” Steeves wrote in an email . He added that “based on scientific understanding of selenium, the current concentrations are not expected to impact fish populations.”
The controversy centers around selenium, a trace element necessary for human health in tiny amounts but damaging to reproductive systems of fish and other creatures at slightly larger levels. A 2020 IJC health study found selenium is also hazardous to humans who consume contaminated fish.
Selenium levels upstream of Teck’s mines in 2012 were less than one part per billion – under the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment guideline of two parts per billion for protection of aquatic life, according to the Canadian government.
But the Upper Fording River downstream of the mines showed selenium levels between nine and 90 parts per billion. That’s the part of the river where the cutthroat trout – a protected species in Canada – disappeared.
University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station senior scientist Erin Sexton has been tracking the selenium problem as it extends from the British Columbia mine sites south into the Kootenai River in Montana and Idaho. Sexton said part of the challenge to confronting selenium contamination is the way it harms animals.
“We haven’t found dead fish or two-headed fish, and we never will,” Sexton said. “It causes deformed embryos or prevents the eggs from hatching altogether. That’s the reason the state of Montana put in place such protective selenium criteria. We have seen selenium in fish tissue in the Koocanusa Reservoir that’s above the federal EPA egg ovary threshold. We know it’s higher than it should be in several species of fish.”
Teck digs steelmaking coal at its 57,000-acre Fording River mine. That coal is different from the thermal coal mined in Montana and much of the United States, and isn’t burned for electricity. Instead, it goes to steel foundries, mainly in China, for metal smelting. The company produces about 9 million metric tons of steelmaking coal a year, and anticipates it has probable reserves for another 28 years.
The Upper Fording River is a tributary of the Elk River, which in turn feeds into Lake Koocanusa – the transboundary reservoir on the Kootenai River created by Libby Dam. Koocanusa is a made-up word combining KOOtenai, CANada and USA to reflect the bilateral nature of the Libby Dam and reservoir project.
The Kootenai River makes a U-turn at Libby and runs west and north into Idaho, before changing its name to Kootenay as it recrosses the Canadian border. Along the way, it passes through the Kootenai Indian Reservation. There the Kootenai River Habitat Restoration Program has spent decades trying to restore white sturgeon and burbot fish to a 55-mile stretch of the waterway.
The Kootenai sturgeon won Endangered Species Act protection in 1994 after habitat disruption from Libby Dam reduced its population from an estimated 7,000 fish in the 1970s to 500 in 2005. Of those, fewer than 30 female sturgeon were expected to be spawning after 2015.
“We’ve been losing sturgeon for 100 years, with everything diked and the forests logged and converted to agriculture throughout the entire Kootenai Valley,” said Genny Hoyle, a river biologist and lead contamination monitor with the Kootenai restoration program. “These are culturally important fish species to the Kootenai Tribe. They have a covenant with Creator to take care of the land. This is part of the Kootenai Tribe fulfilling their covenant with the…