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By Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press

Lake Koocanusa

The quarrel over a Lake Koocanusa water quality standard took an unusual turn Friday when the state Board of Environmental Review voted to send a letter to the federal government saying it erred in its earlier adoption of a standard aimed at reducing waterborne mining pollution.

The letter to a top official in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asserts that the BER made “a legal error” in its previous selenium water quality standard and that the standard is therefore “invalid for both state and federal purposes.”

BER voted 5-2 to send the letter to the EPA. Attorneys working for mining giant Teck Coal drafted the letter, which comes as Teck faces mounting pressure from U.S. officials and tribes on both sides of the border to reduce mining-related pollution entering aquatic ecosystems.

The letter represents the latest development in Teck’s months-long pressure campaign to strike Montana’s water quality standard for selenium, a chemical byproduct of Teck’s British Columbia coal mining operations that can hamper reproductive success in fish and lead to spinal, facial and gill deformities, even in small quantities.

Montana adopted its .8-micrograms-of-selenium-per-liter-of-water standard for Koocanusa in December 2020 after more than five years of research review and consultation between government agencies and tribes on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality maintains that the 0.8 standard was adopted legally and is an appropriate limit to keep Lake Koocanusa’s fishery healthy.

In 2021, Teck petitioned BER — the quasi-judicial volunteer board that adjudicates permitting-related disputes between industry representative and the DEQ — to toss out the standard on the grounds that it’s more stringent than the EPA’s general guidance for selenium in slow-moving water bodies, and therefore violates a “stringency statute” that says the state cannot adopt stricter standards than comparable federal guidelines.

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