Selenium a growing concern in sensitive Northwest trout streams

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About five years ago, Tim Linehan of Linehan Outfitting Co. of the Yaak was fishing the Elk River in British Columbia when he caught a native westslope cutthroat trout that was missing its gill plates. That was when Linehan first learned that upstream coal mines releasing excess selenium into waterways might be causing abnormalities in fish, he said.

“We’ve been relying on agencies for information and to correct this,” said Linehan.

Research has been underway into the environmental impact of selenium entering waterways — including Lake Koocanusa — from coal mining in British Columbia’s Elk Valley for at least two decades. The problem is that there are still questions left unanswered.

Five coal mines owned by Teck Resources, Canada’s largest mining company, operate in the Elk Valley, where coal has been mined for more than 100 years. According to Mike Hensler, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Libby, coal mining leaves tailings that release selenium that has naturally built up in the rock over millennia.

“It’s exposed by the process of mining, and once exposed to air, rain and high water, it has nowhere to go but downstream,” he said.

High levels of selenium are associated with reproductive abnormalities in fish, birds and humans, Hensler said.

In response to rising selenium levels in the water, Teck Resources devised a water treatment facility at one of its mines as part of the company’s requirements to fulfill the 2014 Elk Valley Water Quality Plan. The plan was drawn up “in cooperation with governments in both Canada and the U.S. as well as indigenous groups, communities, independent scientific experts and others” as a “long-term approach to address the management of selenium and other substances released by mining activities throughout the Elk Valley watershed,” according to a statement provided last month by Teck representative Chris Stannell.

As part of the plan, a water treatment facility at the company’s Line Creek Operations is reducing selenium concentrations by about 96 percent, the company claims.

In addition to operating the treatment facility, the company performs “at a minimum monthly water quality sampling at approximately 100 stations in the Elk Valley and aquatic health monitoring programs ... to evaluate potential effects at both a local and regional scale in the watershed.”

State Representative Mike Cuffe of Eureka, who has been involved in several working groups to address the problem of pollutants carried downstream and into Lincoln County, said the selenium issue “is something we all need to keep up on and nothing to be taken lightly.”

“We’ve got a long way to go, but Teck has invested a lot in trying to solve this problem,” Cuffe said “(Investing) $125 million on an experimental water treatment facility is no small matter.”

Canada is “just as invested as the U.S. in solving this problem,” Cuffe said, because the mining run-off water not only flows downstream into the United States, it flows back into Canada and into Kootenay Lake.

Teck’s water treatment plan has not been issue-free. In an earlier report, Mike Rooney, Libby-area president of Trout Unlimited, said the plant was halted earlier this year because “it turns out it was actually making the problem worse and releasing a more bioavailable form of selenium into the river.”

The August statement from the company appears to address this point when it states “we have identified and are working to address a challenge which is related to selenium speciation at the facility.”

The statement doesn’t explicitly define what selenium speciation means, but in biology the term speciation refers to the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution. While that could refer to disfigured fish, in this case it seems to be used in relation to forms of selenium.

“It seems that a type of selenium that more readily moves through the food chain has increased,” Cuffe said.

One problem in addressing the selenium issue, according to Libby fisheries biologist Jim Dunnigan, is that not everyone agrees on the facts.

“It’s hard because we don’t have the numbers for the Elk River before and after Teck began water treatment,” he said on Aug. 23. “We only have the results of local tests that show increasing levels of selenium.”

Testing of fish and water undertaken by Fish, Wildlife and Parks every four years in the Koocanusa Reservoir showed an increase in levels of selenium in fish tissue between 2008 and 2013, Dunnigan said, adding that the next round of tests will take place this fall.

According to Teck’s Aug. 24 statement, the company’s measurements show no cause for concern.

“Monitoring indicates selenium and other constituents are not at levels that are affecting populations of fish and other sensitive aquatic life,” the statements says. Further, “selenium levels within Koocanusa Reservoir remain below the provincial aquatic health guideline level and at the Canada/U.S. border are below the British Columbia Water Quality Guideline of 2 ug/L (micrograms per litre).”

Working towards cross-border standards for what constitutes too-high levels of selenium and other pollutants has been ongoing, said Dunnigan.

Cuffe said the Libby Dam could be a factor in rising levels of selenium.

“It’s held up there, and settles to the bottom, which may be why we’re seeing rising selenium mostly in bottom-feeding fish,” he said. “If not for the dam, this problem may well be swept downstream.”

Linehan said he has not seen any abnormalities in fish caught in the Kootenai River, downstream of the dam, which he fishes almost daily throughout his busy season in summer and fall.

Noting that many Montanans have expressed concern about the situation, Dunnigan said that a local organization he is involved with, the Kootenai River Network, will hold two public meetings on the topic in October.

“We held similar public meetings in 2013,” Dunnigan said. “We had then, and expect to have in October, representatives from Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the British Columbia Ministry, Teck Mining, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Kootenai-Salish tribe.”

The meetings will likely be held Oct. 16 in Eureka and Oct. 17 in Kalispell, Dunnigan said. He is working with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on discussion questions.

“We really want to provide the public with the best available information,” Dunnigan said.

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