SPARWOOD, British Columbia — Scientists, tribal officials, regulators and environmentalists concerned about contamination from Canadian coal mines whose runoff flows into the United States usually focus on the Kootenai River and border-straddling Lake Koocanusa.
But on Tuesday they took to the sky, observing from 10,000 feet the open-pit, mountaintop-removal coal mines operated by Teck Resources Limited throughout British Columbia’s Elk River Valley near Sparwood, northeast of Fernie. On two consecutive flights, representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the International Joint Commission, Flathead Biological Station and Montana Wildlife Federation, joined by news organizations, packed into a six-seat Cessna 210 Centurion operated by EcoFlight, a conservation nonprofit that flies policymakers over threatened landscapes.
The flights originated and landed in Kalispell, but most of the nearly two hours airborne per flight was spent making a large counterclockwise loop around the mines in Canada, which constitute some of the nation’s largest open-pit mining operations.
Teck currently owns five large mines in the area, four of which are active. They produce about 27 million metric tons of high-grade metallurgical coal annually. Unlike thermal coal used for heating and power generation, the coal mined along the Elk River is used in steel making.
A proposed expansion of the footprint of one mine, the Fording River Mine near Elkford, would make it the largest such mine in Canada. Concerns over contamination predate the proposal, and stem from waste rock piles that have accrued over about 50 years of mining in the region, long before Teck purchased the mines.
Flying north along Glacier National Park’s western edge, over the North Fork of the Flathead River, rolling mountains blanketed in timber were punctuated by barren, rocky peaks. Crossing over the Elk River Valley, the forested landscape below gave way to a series of black, terraced coal mining operations that erased whole portions of mountain ranges — and that facilitate a share of the world’s steel production.
The mines also produce toxic waste that flows into the United States and affects wildlife in and around waterways.
The primary contamination concern is selenium, which scientists from the University of Montana, tribal nations and state agencies in the U.S. say exists in Lake Koocanusa at levels high enough to inhibit fish and bird reproduction.
In trace amounts, selenium is essential to animal health. But in greater concentrations it accumulates in fish and bird ovaries, which leads to fewer eggs hatching, animals hatching with deformities, and young animals that die before they can reproduce.
Selenium also makes fish more susceptible to dying in cold temperatures. State, tribal and university studies have found that current levels of selenium flowing from mine runoff into the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa are harming fish there. Teck has disputed those findings.
Selenium leeches into runoff water that flows through waste rock piles and into the Elk and Fording rivers around the mines. The water then flows into the Kootenay River in Canada, which becomes Lake Koocanusa. The lake, a man-made reservoir, stretches into the U.S., where it’s retained by the Libby Dam.
Below the dam, the Kootenai River flows over Kootenai Falls, through Troy and into Idaho before eventually flowing back into Canada. The areas around the river and reservoir are aboriginal lands of the Kootenai Nation in Idaho, Montana’s CSKT and Canada’s Ktunaxa Nation — three sister tribes that have joined forces to oppose increased mining activity in the Elk River Valley.
Teck refers to its Fording River proposal as the Fording River Extension or FRX. The company deems the proposal an extension, rather than an expansion, because although the proposal would drastically expand the Fording River mine’s geographic footprint by blowing up and mining an adjacent mountain, the coal mined there would offset a dwindling reserve in the existing operation. Overall output would stay about the same, but the operation’s lifespan would be extended by tapping into the additional coal deposits.
The tribes also requested that the Canadian government refer existing contamination to the International Joint Commission, a Canadian-American diplomatic office created by the Boundary Waters Treaty to resolve trans-boundary disputes. In May, Global Affairs Canada (roughly equivalent to the U.S. Department of State) refused the request for an IJC reference.
The contamination is a “legacy problem that will be here for a thousand years,” Rob Sisson, a U.S. commissioner on the IJC, said after he landed back in Kalispell. And, he said, the countries “need a structure in place” to protect the waterways and the integrity of agreements made to manage contamination.
“The problem is the legacy issues,” Sisson said, rather than only current and proposed mining. Shutting down mining altogether is “not even on the table,” he added.
In British Columbia, where one of every 20 dollars in provincial tax revenue comes from Teck’s mines, there is precedent for wariness of an IJC reference. In the 1970s, when open-pit coal mines were proposed for the North Fork of the Flathead River just upstream of where it flows across the Canadian border into Glacier National Park, a reference to the IJC resulted in a determination that no level of mining could occur without “irreparable damage” to endangered bull trout, said Erin Sexton, senior scientist at Flathead Biological Station, while flying over the area. The Canadian provincial government refused to accept the IJC’s nonbinding determination, but the mines didn’t come to fruition anyway.
However, since mining has already been ongoing in the Elk River Valley for half a century, a reference to the IJC for contamination originating there would address mitigation rather than determining whether mining should occur. Sexton said a reference would “bring all impacted governments to the table.”
The damage may already be done. Soaring over active and mothballed mines, Rich Janssen, the CSKT director of natural resources, said that the waterway and the cultural heritage therein are “irreparable” once contaminated.
“That impacts our way of life,” he said, filming and photographing the mines from above. “Once you lose a part of your culture, it never comes back.”
Teck claims it’s making headway in mitigating selenium contamination, and that levels have stabilized in Lake Koocanusa. The company has already spent $1.2 billion on water treatment facilities and will spend $750 million more by 2024, according to Vicki Marquis, a Billings-based attorney representing Teck, who testified before a Montana special legislative committee in July.
Current facilities can treat 12.5 million gallons per day. Capacity will increase to 20 million gallons daily by the end of 2022, and to 31.6 million gallons daily by 2031. The facilities are able to remove 95% of selenium from water that enters the plant, according to Teck claims.
But Teck has declined to say what overall percentage of runoff actually enters its plants, so it’s unclear how much of the total runoff gets treated for selenium, as well as nitrates. During the July hearing, state Sen. Jill Cohenour pressed Teck representatives for that figure, noting that she’d requested it before. Marquis said, “I can’t give you a definitive answer to that.”
Sexton said during the flight that she believed Teck’s water treatment constituted “a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of wastewater that needs to be treated from these mines.”
Janssen didn’t have faith that Teck would make meaningful progress on its own to address selenium.
“From what I’ve seen, they’re doing everything in their power to muddy the waters and slow the process, not release their data,” Janssen said. The tribes have been in constant contact with the U.S. government since 2010, he added, but “we don’t think we’re making headway at all” with Canadian governments.
On the flight, looking down at a vast landscape of black coal mines whose runoff flows downstream to his ancestral lands, Janssen was undeterred.
“When you degrade our way of life and our resources that our tribal members use to this day, it concerns us and we’re not going away,” he said. “The next seven generations depend on it.”