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Canadian mining project needs additional scrutiny

| August 30, 2020 12:00 AM

Canada announced this week that it will further assess the risks of a proposed coal mine in British Columbia that could negatively impact water quality in Northwest Montana.

Canadian-based mining giant Teck Resources Limited is proposing to expand its steelmaking coal mine in the Elk Valley just north of Fernie. The U.S. government, tribes and conservation groups, however, are rightfully concerned about transboundary mining pollution and the potential for toxic water following downstream, eventually into Lake Koocanusa and beyond.

In short, they don’t want this wild and scenic stretch of Montana to become “Canada’s settling pond.”

The coal resides deep within mountainous terrain along the Elk River Valley and large quantities of overburden remain as part of the mining.

According to the EPA, selenium leaches out of the waste rock and into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kootenai River which forms Lake Koocanusa.

Recent research has indicated that the Kootenai River downstream of Libby Dam is being affected by these pollutants. The U.S. Geological Survey found that six of the eight samples taken in September 2018 from mountain whitefish eggs in the Kootenai River exceeded EPA’s water quality recommendations for selenium.

Toxins in Northwest Montana’s waterways are not only bad for fish, it’d be devastating for the area’s myriad recreation-based businesses and for many locals’ way of life.

“If ever there were a neighborhood of communities that did not need more mining waste flowing in from upstream, it’s Libby and Troy and Lincoln County,” Dave Hadden of Headwaters Montana told The Western News in 2019.

Headwaters Montana is one of 17 U.S. groups that requested the additional assessment from the Canadian government.

Teck says the project has been scrutinized thoroughly enough, and that its so-called Saturated Rock Backfill process achieves “near-complete removal of nitrate and selenium from mine-impacted waters.”

However, Richard Mylott, a spokesman for EPA, said the new technology has not been demonstrated at the geographic scale and multi-decade time scale needed to abate pollution from Elk River coal mines.”

In short, more scrutiny is needed.

And while Montana and British Columbia continue to pursue an agreeable standard for selenium at the international border, Northwest Montanans should welcome the immediate oversight of this mining project that stands to impact the region for years to come.