Few Idahoans know that there is selenium pollution in the Kootenai River. That’s because people standing on the banks of the river in Bonners Ferry can’t see the selenium or the coal mines in Canada that are causing it.

Teck Resources is removing entire mountain tops in the Elk Valley of British Columbia to extract metallurgical or coking coal, which is used to make iron, steel and other metals. The overburden is deposited in adjacent valleys. When it rains or snows, selenium is washed from the overburden into the Elk and Fording Rivers.

Protect the Kootenai River From Selenium Pollution!

Speak up in support of Montana's selenium limits to protect this important water body, wildlife and our communities!

The selenium pollution is then carried downstream into Lake Koocanusa and across the border into Montana. Water released from Lake Koocanusa through Libby Dam then flows west into Idaho carrying selenium pollution with it.

Selenium pollution is a problem because it accumulates in the bodies of fish and other aquatic wildlife. Toxicological effects of selenium in fish include reduced growth, deformities, reduced liver function, and reduced reproduction. For example, anglers have caught cutthroat trout in the Fording River with no gill plates. Also, eating fish with high levels of selenium can be harmful to people.

Selenium pollution can cause deformities in fish
Selenium pollution can cause deformities in fish. This cutthroat trout from the Fording River in British Columbia has no gill plates.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is in the process of setting a limit on selenium pollution in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River below Libby Dam. Not surprisingly, Teck is injecting uncertainty into the scientific debate and asking for the process to be slowed down. These are classic industry tactics that have been used in the past.

Meanwhile, Teck recently applied for a 40-year permit to expand the Fording River Mine onto Castle Mountain. This expansion would further increase selenium pollution in the Kootenai River. The Elk Valley Mines will cause selenium pollution for centuries to come.

Environmental laws north of the border are appallingly weak. British Columbia policy favors resource development to generate revenue.

Fortunately, the Canadian Federal Government recently decided to review the proposed expansion under the Canadian Impact Assessment Act. This process will provide an opportunity for citizens north and south of the border to review and comment on the proposed expansion.

Let’s hope that the state of Montana sets a strong selenium limit for Lake Kookanusa to protect water quality, aquatic life, and human health. British Columbia must also commit to monitoring and enforcing selenium limits at the border.

Stay tuned for opportunities to help combat selenium pollution in the Kootenai River.