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First victory in effort to protect Koocanusa and Kootenai

Coal mining, Elk Valley, B.C. image courtesy of Flathead Beacon & Garth Lenz

In the last year, I’ve heard reports of two-headed fish and seen a photo of a two-beaked shore bird at Lake Koocanusa.  Concern that selenium flowing downstream into the lake from coal mines in the Elk River watershed of British Columbia has been mounting for at least a decade.  As the urgency of this issue has grown with reports of fish and wildlife deformities, evidence of selenium accumulating in the aquatic ecosystem, and the threat of expanded coal mining that is causing the problem, MTU has stepped up our efforts to protect the greater Kootenai River watershed in Montana.  Last month we notched a hard-earned victory by helping to get the U.S. State Department to commit to begin the process of enforcing a Treaty with Canada that calls for protection of transboundary waters.

In 1972 the Libby Dam began impounding the waters of Lake Koocanusa for flood control and generating hydroelectric power.  Once filled, the reservoir stretched 90 miles north of Libby, MT.  At its upper end Koocanusa is fed by the Kootenai River and two of its main tributaries, the Bull and Elk Rivers.  Because of their wild character and cold waters, the Bull and Elk are both renown westslope cutthroat and bull trout fisheries.  While angling is an important tradition on these rivers, so is coal mining.  Coal has been dug out of the ground in the Elk basin for over a hundred years.  Today, Canadian company Teck Coal operates five coal mines, one of the country’s largest coal mining complexes.  These mines spill sediment, cadmium, nitrates, sulfites, and selenium into the Elk.  Libby dam backs up those contaminants in Koocanusa.

Of those contaminants, selenium is the biggest problem for the system’s aquatic life.  Selenium moves up the food chain as organisms feed on each other.  As selenium increases in a fish’s tissue it can shorten gill covers, twist spines, and cause deformities (like two heads).  But those visible signs of selenium toxicity are not common.  Selenium, once it bioaccumulates in mature trout and other fish species, causes eggs not to hatch.  So, it’s a true ticking time-bomb.  It’s possible to see no effects on fish until selenium levels are high enough to wipe out an entire reproductive cycle.  The situation could be approaching that point in Lake Koocanusa.

MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) biologists have been studying the movement of selenium through the Koocanusa food web for years.  In 2018 the department will finish its third five-year fish tissue sampling effort, which will help determine the state’s selenium standard for the reservoir.  There’s well-founded concern that the fishery’s bull trout, westslope cutthroat, white fish, burbot (ling), kokanee, and much sought-after rainbow trout, which regularly mature to a whopping 10 or 12 pounds, could be at the tipping point for selenium toxicity.

Lake Koocanusa courtesy Mike Rooney

Mike Rooney, Kootenai  Valley TU chapter president, often fishes the Elk River in BC.  Last fall when he did so, he caught plenty of fish and saw no tell-tale deformities associated with the upstream mines.  But, Mike has seen the mines and knows they dwarf the Berkeley Pit and that they are sending toxins down into Montana waters every minute of every day.  Because of that, Mike has been at the heart of our efforts to push the state to set and enforce a selenium standard in Koocanusa, to get the US State Department involved, and to halt the expansion of mine development in the Elk River until the problem of protecting Montana’s resources is solved.  We opened 2018 with a small but significant victory toward those ends.

In addition to Mike Rooney’s efforts with Lincoln County decision-makers, state biologists and fishery managers, and the public, MTU has joined a group of other stakeholders in meetings with Montana Senator Jon Tester and Governor Steve Bullock’s staff.  Those conversations resulted in a joint letter sent by Sen. Tester and Gov. Bullock to US State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson pressing for the US and Canadian governments to uphold the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, which obligates both countries to avoid polluting shared waters that would cause harm in either country.  In his response, Tillerson committed to starting a process with his Canadian counterparts to address coal mine pollution from BC and its impacts to Montana. 

Selenium has been flowing into northwest Montana waters for decades in direct relation to BC’s exportation of low-grade coal to overseas steel-manufacturing industries.  Getting our state to set a rigorous standard for this aquatic contaminant and seeing that standard upheld across an international border is a much-needed step toward protecting the Kootenai watershed.  That’s why we agree with Senator Tester’s response to Secretary Tillerson’s new direction that he “will hold their feet to the fire to ensure they follow through, because clean water is our most valuable resource and we must protect it for future generations.”

 

David Brooks

Winter 2018 Trout Line