Teck Coal is working towards monitoring water quality in Lake Koocanusa year-round for the first time.
The mining company has previously cited safety concerns as the reason water sampling is not conducted during winter at the transboundary waterway.
However, at the Environmental Monitoring Committee’s fourth annual public meeting in Elkford on October 17, Teck representative Carla Fraser indicated year-round monitoring could start this winter.
It follows the launch of a water sampling program by Wildsight, Sierra Club BC, Headwaters Montana and the University of Montana at the Koocanusa reservoir earlier this month to address a perceived data gap.
“We know the importance of monitoring the reservoir in all seasons, so Teck is working right now with our consultant team who monitors the reservoir to try to get data in the winter months,” Fraser told those gathered at the EMC metting.
“It is unsafe when there’s frozen ice over the top of a flowing river. In the U.S., they don’t have the same conditions as us so it’s easier to monitor on the other side.
“But for this winter we are looking at monitoring on both banks of the river.”
Fraser said monitoring last spring revealed a variety of concentrations in both the Elk River and Lake Koocanusa, which indicates the two systems are not mixing.
“We are trying to access at least a few locations where we can get to both sides of the river and monitor what the Elk River concentrations are as well as the Kootenay River concentrations,” she said.
Speaking to The Free Press prior to the meeting, EMC independent scientist Dr. Bruce Kilgour said concentrations of selenium and other constituents of concern have the potential to be higher in the winter.
“However, Teck monitors concentrations of selenium in tissues of invertebrates and fish, which integrate concentrations across the year,” he said.
The Ottawa-based biologist specializes in fisheries and has a background in monitoring aquatic environments.
Dr. Kilgour has worked with other mining companies on similar issues and said he is impressed by Teck’s work in the Elk Valley, and Fraser’s proactiveness.
“This program didn’t just start five years ago, Teck’s overall program started at least 10 years before that, so they were already trying to understand the issue,” he said.
“I’m quite comfortable that we understand the risks in the river piece.
“I think they’ve made really good progress. In 2017-18, we’ve identified additional research that we wanted them to take on, they took it on and I think the results are favourable.”
The EMC was created as a requirement of Permit 107517 issued under the Environmental Management Act.
It’s made up of representatives from the B.C. Government, Ktunaxa Nation Council (KNC), Teck and Kilgour, who work together to provide technical input and advice on environmental programs.
The EMC has directed Teck to investigate the sensitivity of the redside shiner after testing of fish ovaries revealed selenium levels above the Level 1 benchmark at downstream and upstream locations.
“It accumulates selenium faster than some other species in the reservoir, so we’ve asked them to do some experiments to understand its sensitivity to selenium because we know very little about it,” said Kilgour.
He said the EMC had a good understanding of the sensitivity of westslope cutthroat trout, a key species for Teck and various stakeholders.
“We continue to monitor multiple fish species, including the westslope cutthroat trout, in order to determine if the objectives of the plan are being met,” he said.
During the meeting, EMC members fielded questions about new technology in use at the West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Facility, disparities between the B.C. and U.S. guidelines on selenium, compliance activities, and adjustments to the permit limits.
Committee members indicated that any changes to permit limits will be at the discretion of the department director.
However, KNC representative Jesse Sinclair expressed his view that permit limits may be lowered based on current research, which shows certain species of fish and invertebrates may be affected by mining operations.
To view the EMC’s 2018 Public Report, visit Teck.com/responsibility/sustainability-topics/water/water-quality-in-the-elk-valley.
Conservation groups divided
A public meeting hosted by the group overseeing Teck’s environmental monitoring programs in the Elk Valley has drawn a mixed reaction from local conservationists.
Wildsight Elk Valley Conservation Coordinator Randal Macnair and Lee-Anne Walker, Elk River Watershed Alliance (ERA) Community Water Champion and Senior Advisor, were among about 30 people to attend the fourth annual public meeting of the Environmental Monitoring Committee (EMC) in Elkford on October 17.
Macnair asked several questions throughout the forum and left feeling there was a disconnect between the current trends for selenium and nitrate loadings, and the EMC’s positive predictions for the future.
“When asked, the independent scientist wasn’t able to give what I felt was a confident answer as to why there were glowing predictions for the future,” he said.
“Highlights from Teck’s data don’t give us the full picture. We need more disclosure to understand what is happening in the waterways that belong to the people of British Columbia.”
Prior to the meeting, the EMC released its 2018 Public Report, which provides an overview of water quality monitoring and research in the Elk River-Lake Koocanusa watershed.
“In this report, Teck is predicting some big increases to water pollution levels over the next five years,” said Macnair.
“Their modelling shows selenium levels going well above safe levels in Koocanusa, that the nitrate problem in the Fording River isn’t under control, and that there’s a new worry about nickel pollution downstream of Coal Mountain. In the lab, water from downstream of the mines harmed fish in half of the tests and invertebrates in many tests as well.”
Teck recently restarted the West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Facility and is in the process of building more plants to help it reduce pollutants reaching local waterways.
Macnair described these as a “short-term Bandaid on a long-term problem” that will last hundreds of years.
“Teck’s Fording River water treatment plant is already four years behind schedule,” he said.
“It’s clear that the water pollution problem is getting worse. It’s time for the Province to step in to protect our water and our fish.”
Walker, on the other hand, had mostly positive feedback for the EMC following the meeting.
She said she was assured by her conversations with committee members that something was being done to address the concentration and trends of constituents, such as selenium.
Ministry of Environment staff also increased her confidence that the Province is keeping a close eye on water quality and working collaboratively with Teck to “hold them to account” for the agreed upon targets in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan.
“It is very important that community sees stabilization of these constituents and successful mitigation efforts by Teck to achieve reduction,” said Walker.
“This is essential for Teck’s long-term social license to operate as well as the protection of the receiving environment. We all must work together to keep the Elk River drinkable, fishable and swimmable for future generations.”
The ERA has recommended that a priority of the EMC, as expressed at the meeting, is to work with agency partners to come to some agreement on guidelines for constituents, especially selenium for aquatic life and human health.