A U.S. study released earlier this month has found that high levels of selenium have leached into the Elk River from the region’s open pit coal mines.
An environmental group coalition is as a result calling for a moratorium on new coal mining in the Elk Valley.
Dr. Ric Hauer of the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana issued a March 2 study comparing water quality in the Elk and neighbouring Flathead River Basins. Commissioned by Glacier National Park, the study found nitrogen levels at 1,000 times the background rate, sulphate levels at 40-50 times the background rate, and selenium levels at 7-10 times background rate.
A press release from the Sierra Club of B.C. said the 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.”
“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 the East Kootenay environmental group Wildsight. “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.”
“There should be a moratorium on new coal mining in the Elk until the far-reaching impacts of existing mines are addressed,” said Sarah Cox, Interim Executive Director for Sierra Club BC. “Projects like the Line Creek coal mine expansion and proposed Bingay coal mine would only increase toxic pollution in the Elk. We need to take a big step back and look at how this area is managed as a whole.”
“The high concentrations of sulphates and selenium in waters downstream of coal mines represent a significant threat to the ecological integrity of these streams and rivers,” the U.S. report said.
“This should be of great concern to both Environment Canada and the U.S. EPA, as the Elk is a tributary to the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa, which flows into the U.S.A. in western Montana.”
Terry Lake, Minister of Environment, told the Townsman Thursday that the Province is working on a “valley-wide solution,” in consultation with the other parties involved.
“We’ve known this is a challenge for some time now,” Lake said. “We’ll all been sharing information, and what we’ve got is a hundred years of mining that has created a challenge — in particular with (selenium), which in the past we didn’t have the technology to measure.
“We understand the concerns of the Americans, and we need to take a valley-wide approach to this problem. But if we were to shut down mining entirely, then we’d have a problem.”
Lake said the Province had been in consultation with industry and federal and U.S. government counterparts, and a two-point solution is being considered.
The first, Lake said, is to divert water away from the waste rock, so that the acids and metals don’t leech into the water. The second is to treat the water — to create treatment plants, for example, to remove metals like selenium from the water.
“This will take time and money,” Lake said. “But we all recognize the problem.”
He added that Teck has been very cooperative in this matter.
Teck Resources, which operates five coal mines in the Elk Valley, issued a statement to the Townsman Thursday.
“At Teck, we take environmental issues very seriously,” it reads. “That is why we are taking action through our Valley-wide 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.
Teck also referred to the water diversion and treatment strategies.
“Over the next five years, Teck will invest up to $600 million on the installation of water diversion and treatment facilities, investments in research and development to improve selenium management, and ongoing aquatic monitoring.
“Our operations in the Elk Valley employ over 4,000 people directly and support thousands of families and communities that rely on the industry across our province,” Teck’s statement said. “We’re focused on working cooperatively to implement solutions that address this important issue, while also ensuring we can continue to operate responsibly and support jobs and economic opportunity in the Kootenays.”
Groups calling for the mining moratorium are Wildsight, Sierra Club BC, CPAWS-BC and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. The four groups are also urging the B.C. government to dedicate a park in the southeastern one-third of the Flathead River Valley, adjacent to Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
“We need a comprehensive long-term plan that reconciles the region’s world-class wildlife and wilderness values with its coal resources,” added Wendy Francis, Program Director for Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
“The plan should ensure protection of human health, wilderness recreation, international fisheries, water quality and core habitat values, as well as wildlife connectivity from the Flathead River Valley to Banff National Park.”