Fishing on the Kootenai is Threatened by Coal Mining

Today’s guest blog about the #9 Kootenai River- a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series- is from Beckie Clarke, owner and operator of Fernie Fly Fishing, in Fernie, British Columbia, Canada.  Beckie talks about the impacts to fishing caused by mines on the Elk River.  The Elk River joins the Kootenai River at Lake Koocanusa, and pollution flowing downstream from coal mines on the Elk has caused the Kootenai to be placed on the list of endangered rivers this year.

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There is major concern for the health of the valley’s beautiful Elk River and the downstream Kootenai River (or Kootenay to Canadians).  What is now a world-class fishery with amazing dry fly fishing could in the next few years see drastic changes.  

Teck Coal has been discharging selenium into the Elk/Kootenai River watershed.  As a result, extremely high levels of toxic selenium have been found in the eggs of cutthroat trout, birds, and frogs.  Having this toxin flow into our rivers will cause irreversible long-term damage, and if drastic measures aren’t implemented, our wild fish stock will be annihilated.  Every caution should be taken to ensure that Teck Coal is protecting and enhancing the local fishery.

As a licensed guide outfitter in the Elk Valley watershed, I find this situation very scary.

The government of British Columbia has identified the Elk River drainage as a “Classified Fishery”.  This means that it is very well protected, with restrictions placed on guide operations and the general public.  These precautions are all taken in order to protect the quality of fishing.  With this classification comes an allocation of angler rod days which each outfitter owns.  Outfitters are required to pay a huge fee to the government each year for this allocation.  Additionally, the average angler from out-of-province is required to pay $22.40 per day for a “classified waters tag” for each river that they fish.  Collectively, this seems like a lot of fees to pay when the river is being so polluted.  

How is the provincial government ensuring that the protective classification, which river users are paying to maintain, will hold its status in the future, when there is so much damage being done by the coal industry?

Fortunately, there is a positive, and what appears to be hopeful, light at the end of the tunnel.  Teck Coal has recognized that dealing with the selenium is necessary for sustainability of the river, and they have demonstrated a strong strategic intent to clean things up.  They are in the process of filtering the water better, but there needs to be more done.  Relying on one single remediation method is not the best option.  

From my point of view, with everything that I have read, heard, and seen, I am hopeful that Teck Coal is going to do as they say.  If— just IF— they do, we will see a decrease in the selenium levels by 2020. 

A regular report card needs to be issued from Teck Coal— what progress have they made with what they said they were going to do?  Also, the government needs to ensure that they are doing what they claim to be doing.  

Actions speak louder than any words, meetings, or reports… it’s the results that matter. 

A huge educational tool for anyone interested in learning more is an amazing report from Stella Swanson of the Strategic Advisory Panel on Selenium Management called: The Way Forward: A Strategic Plan for the Management of Selenium at Teck Coal Operations [PDF] (2010). I found this report so helpful and educational, and it lays out exactly what is happening, challenges Teck Coal faces, and what they need to do.  Please take the time to read and educate yourself on what is happening on our local watershed.

“Science is about openness, discovery, trust, and sharing.”

Lend your voice to this effort to protect the Kootenai River!  Please tell the Secretary of State John Kerry to request the intervention of the International Joint Commission to ensure that the Kootenai River is protected for future generations!