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By Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press

The selenium battle of Lake Koocanusa

In December 2020, after five and a half years of meetings with government agencies and tribes on both sides of the border, Montana arrived at a set of standards it deemed necessary to protect Lake Koocanusa, a 92-mile reservoir that straddles the U.S.-Canada border, from selenium pollution flowing into Montana from British Columbia’s largest coal mining operation.

At the time, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said the new standards would protect the lake and the Kootenai River immediately downstream from selenium, a chemical element that even in small quantities can hamper reproductive success in fish and lead to spinal, facial and gill deformities. DEQ said an extensive process replete with collaboration and public engagement was used to arrive at the standards, which the state Board of Environmental Review approved in the final month of former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s second term. The new standards became law when the federal agency that administers the Clean Water Act signed off on them two months later.

But in recent months, a Canadian mining company with big plans to expand its coal mining footprint has thrown a wrench into what appeared to be a settled issue by asserting that state agencies broke Montana law by adopting a standard for Lake Koocanusa of 0.8 micrograms of selenium per liter of water. Over the past nine months, Teck Coal, a multi-billion-dollar subsidiary of mining giant Teck Resources, has brought high-level executives and attorneys to meetings before environmental regulators and policymakers in Helena and Libby in an attempt to invalidate one of the eight Montana standards — the one that defines an acceptable amount of selenium in Lake Koocanusa.

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