After a collaborative process involving ten years of data collection, seven different state and federal agencies, three First Nations, two international committees, and one peer-reviewed model, the state of Montana successfully adopted protective limits for selenium pollution in December. With yesterday’s approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these limits are officially the law of the land but that won’t stop two Montana state legislators from trying to dissolve all this effort. 

The only source of selenium into Montana and then Idaho is from five mountain-top removal coal mines operated by Teck Coal in the Elk River Valley in British Columbia. Selenium pollution flows from the mines, down the Elk River into Lake Koocanusa, and, ultimately, the Kootenai River in northern Idaho. 

Selenium is a toxic element that gets into our waterways, makes its way up the food chain, and triggers harmful side effects in burbot and endangered Kootenai River white sturgeon. The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho plays a leading role in the recovery of these fish. Increasing selenium concentrations in the Kootenai River threatens to undermine these recovery efforts.

On Dec. 11, the Montana Board of Environmental Review adopted selenium limits protecting Lake Koocanusa and Montana’s stretch of the Kootenai River, the water bodies receiving the brunt of pollution from Canada. The Clean Water Act says states have the responsibility to develop water quality limits but stipulates that the EPA gets final approval. On Feb. 25, the EPA formally approved the state of Montana’s selenium limits making them enforceable by law across state, tribal, and national boundaries. 

The effort to establish strong limits on selenium pollution was led by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Ktunaxa Nation Council of B.C.; collectively known as the transboundary Ktunaxa Nation. Montana now has the most protective selenium limits in the United States. 

Just days before the EPA signed off on the new limits, two Montana state legislators, Sen. Mike Cuffe and Rep. Steve Gunderson, introduced a bill to the Montana legislature that seeks to repeal the new selenium limits. These new limits enable Montana and Idaho to hold Canadian mining companies accountable for pollution on the U.S. side of the border. If the Montana legislature votes to repeal the standards, Montana and Idaho will be left with no ability to protect Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River from Canadian mining pollution.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, if the limits are rolled back, Montana would be in violation of the Clean Water Act and likely get tangled in a web of lengthy litigation. 

Stay tuned for more updates about this transboundary water quality issue!