Coal company seeks to lower Montana’s water quality standard
Canada’s largest coal company is challenging a new Montana water quality standard that aims to limit concentrations of toxic runoff from the company’s mines in British Columbia as it crosses the international border into the Kootenai River and the Koocanusa lake.
Teck Resources Ltd. this month filed a petition with the State Board of Environmental Review, part of the Department of Environmental Quality, which last year adopted a strict site-specific water quality standard for the trace element selenium, a byproduct of coal mining that has been found at high levels in fish and egg tissue samples on both sides of the border.
At high concentrations, selenium can kill fish, cause reproductive problems and inhibit growth.
The Montana site-specific standard targets Teck’s mountain-top coal mines in the Elk Valley of British Columbia, which are the only industrial source of selenium runoff in the region. It allows selenium concentrations of 0.8 micrograms per liter in Koocanusa Lake and 3.1 micrograms per liter in the Kootenai River, although it is difficult to enforce without an equally stringent standard in place in British Columbia. .
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 generally recommended selenium limits of 1.5 micrograms per liter for lakes and reservoirs and 3.1 micrograms per liter for rivers, but also said that State regulators should impose site-specific standards, where appropriate.
Now, Teck is asking the Board of Environmental Review to rescind the new standard on the grounds that it is “more stringent than the comparable federal guideline for selenium of 1.5 micrograms per liter”, allegedly in violation of US law. State.
“Teck reserves itself, and by filing this petition is not waiving any of its legal rights and causes of action, including, but not limited to, those based on Montana’s lack of jurisdiction to adopt a quality standard of water targeting Teck operations in Elk Valley, ”the company said. the petition cautions.
The Board of Environmental Review reviewed the petition but took no action during its Aug. 13, with members questioning whether the matter fell within the board’s jurisdiction. The board elected to solicit public comments on the administrative process before its October 8 meeting.
During the meeting, DEQ attorney Kurt Moser said the agency planned to file documents opposing Teck’s petition, noting that “the board has already concluded that the standards of selenium adopted were not more stringent than federal “. A DEQ spokesperson confirmed on Friday that the agency still plans to intervene.
Board member David Lehnherr said it would be “a waste of the board’s time” to revisit the matter and allow Teck to find a way around the new rules.
“This issue was addressed last year and came to a very scientifically based conclusion that was in the best interest of Montana and its waterways, and now we have a company that is trying to get around DEQ,” Lehnherr said. during a meeting. “And so I would say we should do whatever we can to avoid getting more involved in this matter, and leave the good judgment that the board of directors made last year.”
In April, Teck paid a $ 60 million fine after pleading guilty in Canadian federal court to dumping dangerous amounts of selenium and calcite into the Fording River from two coal mines north of Eureka. Pollution has been blamed for killing large numbers of westslope cutthroat trout.
Teck chairman Don Lindsay apologized at the time and took responsibility for the damage, saying the company had invested around $ 1 billion in water treatment facilities and committed to spend up to $ 655 million more over the next four years to further protect nearby waters.
“Once again, to the Ktunaxa First Nation, whose land we operate, and to our communities in the Elk Valley, we deeply regret these impacts and apologize,” said Lindsay at the time. “You have my commitment to not falter in our focus on this challenge and to work to ensure that the environment is protected for today and for future generations. “
The fine of $ 60 million was 10 times greater than any previous sanction imposed under the Fisheries Act of Canada.
Associate Editor Chad Sokol can be reached at 406-758-4439 or [email protected] The Associated Press contributed to this report.