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Who’s behind push to change selenium standards?

| March 30, 2023 12:00 AM

When a Canadian mining company successfully lobbied a Montana board appointed by Governor Gianforte to let them add more pollution to Montana’s water, it’s time to take a step back and figure out how we got here.

In 2020, Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) published standards for how much selenium was allowed in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River in northwest Montana. These standards were developed over several years in conjunction with the EPA’s national criteria and by a coalition including British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, USFWS, USGS, University of Saskatchewan, Environmental Consulting (rep. Teck Coal Ltd.), U.S. Tribes, and B.C. First Nations.

Imagine our surprise, then, to see that Teck Resources Ltd. – a Canadian coal mining company that participated in that process – is now trying to overturn standards that it helped create.

The Montana Board of Environmental Review (BER) is a quasi-judicial agency with a stated mission to protect the health, safety and interests of our state and our people. At Teck’s behest, and with the objection of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, BER sent a letter to EPA claiming that the standards are too strenuous and that there should be MORE selenium allowed in Montana waters.

Someone should tell them that changing water quality standards to allow this foreign mining company to allow more toxic selenium in Lake Koocanusa is NOT part of their job description.

BER and Teck are not using science to dismiss the selenium standards at Lake Koocanusa – instead, the new BER majority alleged that its previous incarnation failed to provide a written reason why the new standards were stricter than federal standards. To address the new BER’s concerns DEQ held a public hearing and then – as required by law – issued a report detailing the extensive scientific facts and justifications for the adopted selenium standard.

Nonetheless at its meeting last October, the BER majority voted to ignore DEQ’s actions and declare the new standards invalid, and even asked Teck to draft a legal letter to the EPA for them. In December, BER accepted Teck’s letter, with some amendments by the Board chair – an industry lawyer who for decades worked for the law firm now representing Teck – and then sent it to the EPA.

DEQ is rightly appealing these actions.

The Board of Environmental Review is bending over backward to accommodate a mining company that has recently been fined almost $17 million for environmental violations in Canada. Maybe the rationale is that if Teck is going to pollute anyway, just make it legal?

There are no benefits to Montana to be gained from weakening our water quality standards. The mining company is Canadian. Its mines are in Canada – B.C.’s Elk Valley to be exact. Its taxes are all paid to the B.C. and Canadian governments. The jobs all go to British Columbians and other Canadians. Montana gets no money, no jobs, and no investment out of this.

Oh wait – there is one thing. Montana will get excess amounts of selenium, a toxin that can harm fish populations over time. This will also impact our neighbors in Idaho who share the watershed.

Montana has known its share of pollution disasters. The selenium standards exist now because of a thoughtful, site-specific process to prevent such another disaster. Let’s not throw those away for nothing.

Flannery Freund, president of the North Fork Preservation Association

Dave Haddon, former executive director of Headwaters Montana