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EPA OKs selenium rule for Koocanusa

A burbot is seen at the Twin Rivers Hatchery in Idaho.  (Courtesy of Genny Hoyle)
A burbot is seen at the Twin Rivers Hatchery in Idaho. (Courtesy of Genny Hoyle)
By Rob Chaney The Missoulian

MISSOULA – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted a new standard for selenium waste in Montana’s Kootenai River and Koocanusa Reservoir last Thursday, after the Legislature dropped plans to revoke the state rule.

“EPA’s action is based on a thorough technical review of the State’s submission and a determination that the adopted standards are based on sound science and consistent with the Clean Water Act,” EPA spokeswoman Laura Flynn Jenkins wrote in an emailed statement.

“Montana’s revised standards will strengthen ongoing efforts to address selenium concerns in surface waters, fish and aquatic life within the Kootenai River watershed.”

The stricter standards were applauded by the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. Tribal biologists have documented high levels of selenium in burbot swimming in Idaho’s Kootenai River.

“Unfortunately, everywhere we look for it we find it and we find it in concerning concentrations,” said Genny Hoyle, a fisheries biologist for the Kootenai tribe.

Last March, tribal biologists analyzed tissue from 30 burbot pulled from the Kootenai River system. While research is ongoing, Hoyle said they found high levels of selenium in the sampled fish livers.

The EPA announcement came three days after Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, led testimony before the state Senate’s Natural Resources Committee on Senate Bill 324, which would order the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to revoke the selenium standard it approved last November. That bill died in committee Friday evening on a 7-5 vote.

At the earlier hearing, Cuffe and others argued the standard was adopted in a rushed process without complete information and would harm the economy of Lincoln County. He also claimed that the Canadian coal company Teck Resources Ltd., which is responsible for all the selenium coming into the watershed, was making efforts to clean up the problem.

Selenium is a naturally occurring trace element necessary for good health in many organisms, including fish and humans, in minuscule amounts. It becomes hazardous in slightly higher amounts.

State and federal studies over the past six years have shown the amounts flowing into Koocanusa and the Kootenai are harming fish reproductive organs. Teck and other Canadian coal companies have announced plans for major expansions of their mining operations in the watershed.

The DEQ, and now EPA, standards limit selenium to 0.8 micrograms per liter in the Koocanusa reservoir water and 3.1 micrograms per liter in the Kootenai River. DEQ Director Chris Dorrington pointed out those standards are for fish health and not the same as selenium levels for human drinking water.

On Friday, Cuffe said he believed his efforts were not intended to benefit Teck or the Canadian coal mining. He said he wasn’t aware the water quality standard was going to be so low, and thought it would hurt real estate sales or future timber industry activity.

Removing the state rule would put Montana in conflict with the federal Clean Water Act and could expose it to liability claims from water users, including the state of Idaho, Native American tribes and fishing guides concerned about damaged fish populations, according to Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association, which participated in the selenium standard development.

“We’re taking on a tremendous amount of liability on behalf of a foreign coal company that produces zero jobs and zero revenue for the state of Montana,” Jamison said on Friday. “If we open this back up, given the science we knew at the time we signed, it, I think it’s highly likely the EPA would require an even stiffer guideline.”

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant questioned Cuffe’s claim of a rushed process in a letter to the Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.

“If something was rushed regarding selenium in Koocanusa, it is that the legislative hearing for this bill appears to have been posted on a Saturday, only to close sign-ups for remote testimony the next day,” Fyant wrote.

“Selenium contamination in Lake Koocanusa is clearly and scientifically tied to coal mines in the Elk River watershed of British Columbia (it has been demonstrated that it is not ‘background’ and not from U.S./Montana sources),” Fyant continued.

“We have years of data for the Elk River and Lake Koocanusa definitively demonstrating that selenium and nitrates from the Canadian mines are degrading – in Montana – water quality, fish and all life that depends on those waters.”

Eli Francovich contributed to this report.

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