Expansion plans at some Canadian coal mines have alarmed American officials over the amount of heavy metals pollution that could be flowing across the international border into Montana.
“We’re seeing increased selenium runoff from existing mining activity, that’s why we’re concerned,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional director Jim Martin. “We’ve had a number of formal and informal conversations with the (British Columbia) provincial government.”
The mines lie in the Elk River drainage, roughly 100 miles north of Whitefish. That river flows into Lake Koocanusa on the Montana side of the border. In addition to selenium and other heavy metals, the mines contribute high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds that interfere with the river system’s aquatic life.
Selenium is an essential nutrient in small doses, but quickly becomes toxic at higher levels. British Columbia has a selenium guideline of 2 micrograms per liter, although that’s not an enforceable limit. U.S. water quality measurements have found selenium levels well over that amount for more than a decade, according to Erin Sexton, a transboundary watershed ecosystem scientist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station. Some test sites have reported levels as high as 40 micrograms per liter.
“Our selenium standard when crossing the international border is 5 micrograms per liter,” Sexton said. “The water quality measurements just north of border have been reading 4.86, just a fraction below the Montana state and EPA standards.”
That’s a problem, but like several things in this story, not in the way most people expect. For one thing, the coal involved doesn’t go to power plants. For another, the Elk River is getting famous as a bull trout fishery.
Most of the mines belong to Teck Resources, the world’s second-largest exporter of metallurgic coal. About 90 percent of Teck’s production goes to Asia, Europe and South America, according to the company’s website. There it’s used for making steel, not for running power plants.
Five major coal mines line the Elk River, and three more sites are under exploration for new projects. The British Columbia government is reviewing five expansion proposals, ranging from a doubling of capacity at the Line Creek mine to pit expansions at several other sites.
The area ships about 35,000 tons of coal a day, generating 600,000 tons of waste rock at the same time. Most of the pollution comes from rain and snow runoff filtering through that waste rock.
A new proposal called the Bingay Main Coal Project would produce 2.2 million tons of coal a year. It would be located 13 miles north of Elkford, B.C., roughly 75 miles north of the U.S. border. Owner Centermount Coal Ltd. is still in preliminary review stages with the Canadian government.
A statement on Tuesday from the British Columbia Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas said all the mines would go through an extensive regulatory review process and “plans for controlling and improving water quality will be put in place at all of the mine operations.”
Teck spokesman Chris Stannell said the company had brought together a panel of scientists to make recommendations about controlling selenium from its mines.
“We have implemented selenium management plans at all of our steel-making coal operations and have investments under way of approximately $211 million over the next three years in water treatment projects and research to improve selenium reduction,” Stannell said in an email. “To date we’ve completed water diversions at two operations and construction has commenced on our first water treatment plant for selenium removal. We are committed to continuing to work openly and cooperatively with all stakeholders to implement solutions to this challenge.”
Also on Tuesday, the International Energy Agency released a report on the worldwide coal industry. It noted coal use could surpass oil as the world’s dominant fuel source by 2017, growing 2.6 percent a year.
“In fact, the world will burn around 1.2 billion more tonnes of coal per year by 2017 compared to today – equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in a news release. “Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to grow each year, and if no changes are made to current policies, coal will catch oil within a decade.”
Most of the Canadian mining takes place by open pit or mountaintop removal methods. Runoff from the explosives used in that mining has added lots of nitrogen and phosphorus to the water system. Sexton said the levels are roughly 1,000 times greater than what’s found in the Flathead River drainage to the east, which has no mining activity.
“What we’re seeing in the Elk is an overabundance of algae as a result of the mines,” Sexton said. “It’s like a feed lot highly productive but unnatural. You’re growing fish in the river, but the tissue analysis of a fish from the Flathead looks very different than a fish from the Elk. One has a high selenium level in its flesh.”
That’s because selenium bio-accumulates, concentrating in higher and higher levels as it passes up the food chain from algae to insects to fish. While the North Fork of the Flathead River along Glacier National Park has stoneflies, caddis flies and mayflies feeding fish, the Elk is limited to pollution-resistant mayflies. Where the Flathead has 72 species of algae growing, the Elk has 12.
“And you’re river downstream, so these impacts are shared impacts,” said John Bergenske, executive director of British Columbia-based Wildsight, a conservation group that’s been monitoring environmental conditions for several decades. “As far as the buildup, most of it will be on your (Montana) side of the border.”
Bergenske said progress has slowed on the new mining permits as both the industry and Canadian officials look for ways to control the pollution. Wildsight has been a part of those discussions, and recognizes Teck’s role in world metal production.
“But the reality is unless they’re willing to make major commitments and demonstrate these solutions are effective, it doesn’t make much sense to have mine expansions that produce more selenium,” Bergenske said. “They have owned up to looking at all heavy metal pollutions in the Elk.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.