Bull trout

Bull trout, despite comebacks, are still in danger, experts warn.

Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife

Montana water quality researchers praised a $1.4 million fine levied against Canadian mining firm Teck Resources Ltd. for polluting rivers that cross the international border.

A British Columbia provincial court ordered Teck to pay the money to the province’s Environmental Damages Fund for fish conservation and protection in the East Kootenay River drainage. The Kootenay River becomes Lake Koocanusa where it backs up behind Libby Dam in Montana.

The case stems from a 2014 incident at Teck’s Line Creek coal mine about 80 miles north of Eureka in the Elk River drainage. The mine’s water treatment facility was cited for three releases of contaminated water that killed bull and cutthroat trout in Line Creek.

“The fish kill was of enormous interest for all of us who track the river system,” said Erin Sexton, a research scientist at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station. “It’s taken quite some time for there to be any action on the regulatory side of things.”

The pollution releases included dangerous amounts of nitrates and selenium, a mining byproduct that in large doses can cause deformities, reproductive damage or death to fish. Sexton said Montana studies in Lake Koocanusa have found elevated levels of selenium, from the Canadian mines, south of the border.

Robin Sheremeta, Teck senior vice president for coal, said in a statement released Thursday that the company had improved its monitoring systems and built an effluent buffer pond to prevent future releases.

“From the outset we took full responsibility for this incident and recognize that we need to do better,” Sheremeta wrote in the statement. “Following this occurrence in 2014, we undertook a full investigation and implemented a number of steps to ensure this does not happen again.”

Elk River coal mostly goes to Asian markets, where it is used for smelting steel rather than energy production. In May, the British Columbia Auditor General reported that mining companies and the province’s regulatory agencies were doing a poor job of complying with mining and pollution regulations and laws.

The Canadian environmental group Wildsight has been monitoring the case since it was brought to court three years ago. Wildsight Executive Director Robyn Duncan said cleaning up the mine pollution involved more than a specific fish kill.

“While much effort has gone into tackling the issue of dangerous selenium contamination running off from waste rock dumps at the Elk Valley coal mines, the problem is still far from solved,” Duncan wrote in an email. “This 2014 failure and other ongoing issues at the Line Creek water treatment plant show that the selenium problem needs much more attention.”

Flathead Lake Biological station bull trout research aquatic ecologist Clint Muhlfeld said the Elk River has already shown changes in its chemistry related to mine waste. The addition of nitrates act like fertilizer, which has resulted in algae blooms, and suppressed native stonefly insect populations. And while small amounts of selenium are needed for health, large amounts accumulate in top predators like bull trout, which are already suffering from other threats to their habitat.

“That’s been something that both our countries have been looking at throughout the entire connected ecosystems,” Muhlfeld said. “It’s like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. There’s a critical tipping point where you see a lot of effects up the food chain.”

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