IJC takes lead to resolve cross-border selenium contamination controversy

Lake Koocanusa
In late 2020, Montana officials said downstream pollution within Lake Koocanusa had reached levels of 1.1 micrograms per litre. Photo Credit: Max, stock.adobe.com

Canada has agreed to the creation of a binational board of experts to address selenium contamination washed downstream from coal mining in the Elk River Valley in British Columbia into Lake Koocanusa, a reservoir straddling the border and into U.S. rivers. 

Pressure has been put on Canada for years to take action on selenium levels that U.S. officials have said are toxic for fish and birds.    

By June, the International Joint Commission (IJC) will help to facilitate a report that will take two years to comprehensively address the impacts of transboundary water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai/y Watershed in B.C., and in the states of Montana and Idaho. 

The board is expected to include scientists, tribes and governments of all levels from both nations, the IJC announced on March 12. 

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The IJC’s Canadian Chair, Merrell-Ann Phare, noted in a statement that “water quality concerns in this watershed have been present for decades, and we are pleased that the IJC has been tasked to work on this matter further to a consensus reached between Canada, the United States, and the Ktunaxa Nation. Governance innovation with Indigenous Peoples will be a key component to our success.”  

B.C.’s Teck Resources, which mines and ships large reserves of high-grade coal globally for steel production, has often been singled out as the primary source of selenium contamination in the region. The company suggests it has made progress on the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan by building four water treatment facilities that have cost more than $1 billion. 

“Teck’s water treatment facilities are achieving approximately 95% removal of selenium and nitrate from treated water,” the company states on its website. “We expect further significant reductions of selenium and nitrate as additional facilities come online.” 

In late 2020, Montana officials said downstream levels of selenium within Lake Koocanusa had reached levels of 1.1 micrograms per litre. As the contamination did not exceed the national standard of five micrograms per litre set in 1987, state officials changed the contamination threshold for the lake to 0.8 micrograms per litre. 

In 2018 and 2019, whitefish from the river contained selenium that exceeded national standards, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.  

In reaction to the new binational agreement to investigate the selenium contamination, B.C.’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, George Heyman, released a joint statement in conjunction with several ministries. He affirmed support for the commitment made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden in March 2023 to “reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watershed.”  

Heyman noted that the new agreement “acknowledges the particular complexity of pollution concerns in this watershed,” and hopes the IJC report will result in “transparent and coordinated transboundary data and knowledge sharing.” 

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