KALISPELL, Mont. -- Towns, tribes and politicians in U.S. states bordering British Columbia are seeking better oversight and stricter regulations to protect them from hazardous pollution that flow downstream from coal mines in the Canadian province.
Leaders in Libby, Troy and Eureka, towns along the Kootenai River, wrote in separate letters to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock saying their livelihoods depend on the region's rivers and lakes. But those waterways that support diverse wildlife and recreational interests are being compromised by contaminants from British Columbia coal mines, they said.
They and tribal leaders in Montana and Idaho want state and federal officials to fund better long-term water quality monitoring and to adopt a strict water quality standard for selenium.
Selenium is a mineral that is toxic at elevated levels. There is no current state regulatory standard for selenium in the northwestern Montana watershed, but concentrations there already exceed the threshold identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"The river and the surrounding public lands form our economic foundation," wrote Troy Mayor Dallas Carr and members of the city council. "We write you today to do all you can to protect the Kootenai River from water pollution from British Columbia's coal mines in the upper Elk River Valley, a major tributary of the Kootenai."
Leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes also requested that the state and provincial governments in Montana, Idaho and British Columbia adopt more stringent selenium standards. Their request mirrored a similar one by the Ktunaxa Nation Council and the Council of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.
The tribes are asking to follow the EPA's selenium standard of 1.5 micrograms per liter (ug/L) until a specific standard is determined for the region.
Marissa Perry, a spokeswoman for Bullock, said the governor's office has received the letters and supports an open and transparent process in coming up with solutions for the concerns.
Eight U.S. senators from all four states bordering British Columbia — Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Montana — wrote a separate letter to British Columbia Premier John Horgan, urging him to better safeguard U.S. waters from mining pollutants.
"While we appreciate Canada's engagement to date, we remain concerned about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary rivers that originate in B.C. and flow into our four U.S. states," the letter states.
Teck Resources Ltd. runs five open-pit coal mines in the Elk River Valley. The river flows into Lake Koocanusa, which straddled the U.S.-Canada border, before flowing into the Kootenai River.
Teck officials said the company is conducting water-quality monitoring at 100 stations in the Elk Valley, and it is committed to taking the steps necessary to stabilizing and reducing selenium levels in the Elk River watershed and the Koocanusa reservoir.
In 2015, a collaborative research and monitoring group called the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group set out to determine how best to manage the effects of the mining contaminants and coordinate efforts between agencies as they grapple with adopting a new standard for selenium.
The group plans to deliver its recommendations next year.
Information from: Flathead Beacon, http://www.flatheadbeacon.com