Latest News on the Kootenai River

Today’s guest blog about the #9 Kootenai River- a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series- is from Ryland Nelson, one of our Canadian partners with Wildsight. Wildsight works locally, regionally, and globally to protect biodiversity and encourage sustainable communities in Canada’s Columbia and southern Rocky Mountain region.

Kootenai River, MT, ID | © Robyn Fleming

Kootenai River, MT, ID | © Robyn Fleming

Ask U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to request the engagement of the International Joint Committion (IJC) to address water pollution issues in the Kootenai River.

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The Elk River and its five open-pit coal mines have alarmingly high levels of selenium that flow into the Kootenai River, which flows through British Columbia, Montana, and Idaho. Selenium, a naturally-occurring element, is released as a result of the mining, and becomes toxic at very low levels in rivers. This concern led to the Kootenai River’s inclusion on American Rivers’ 2013 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®.

In 2010, the mine operator, Teck Resources Limited, committed to stabilizing and reversing the trend of increasing selenium levels. Teck plans to build several water treatment plants at a cost of over $600 million dollars to address this problem.

However, despite documented violation of provincial and federal water quality guidelines for selenium, four of the five mines are expanding and new mines are under consideration. Each mine is being considered individually, with no legal requirement to evaluate the cumulative water quality and aquatic life impacts from all mines in the area.

Consequently, earlier this month a new coal mine was permitted in the Elk River Valley. The permit for this mine is conditional, meaning that certain actions must be taken by Teck to protect the aquatic health of the river. Some of the key conditions are:

  • Development of management plans to mitigate local and cumulative effects on water quality and wildlife
  • Development of a compensation plan to offset fish habitat loss and a regional fish habitat management plan
  • Completion of a population assessment of westslope cutthroat trout in the Upper Fording drainage basin
  • Verify the findings of the human-health-risk assessment

This permit was set to be issued without any of these conditions. Pressure from American Rivers and its partners, including Wildsight on the ground in the Elk Valley, has been critical to maintain the necessary scrutiny on activities that affect the Elk River. A Technical Advisory Committee, including industry, government (B.C., Canada, Montana, and U.S.), and First Nation tribal representation, has begun deliberations on the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan that will set targets and make recommendations for clean up and impact mitigation for the Elk River system.

The proof will be in the rigor and implementation of these plans. Will they be wide-ranging enough and implemented so as to reverse the trend of increasing selenium levels in the watershed and mitigate impacts on a heavily impacted ecosystem? Stay tuned.