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Summer 2016: The Elk River Watershed

I'll be packing my microphone and heading out west to visit scientists and folks along the Elk River, the Kootenay River, Lake Koocanusa and south into Montana.
Elk River in the NewsControversy
The Elk River valley is in the east Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia. There are five coal mines in the watershed. One is scheduled to close at the end of 2017. Two have recently been approved for expansion. Three new coal mines are proposed and are currently in the environmental assessment process.

Coal mining in this region involves blasting the seams from the mountains and removing the coal from surrounding blast rock. Every ton of coal comes with ten or more tons of waste rubble.

In its original tomb in the mountain, the rock is benign. Crushed and piled in natural funnels of the Kootenay landscape it becomes toxic. Water from snowmelt, rain or former creeks percolates through the rubble piles and extracts contaminants that flush down the drainages into local creeks and rivers.

Although mining has recently slowed in the region due to low coal prices, existing waste piles will continue to leach for decades.

 Contaminants of Concern

Selenium

Calcite

Nitrate

Sulphate

Cadmium

Elk River pollution hit the news in 2013

Mines blamed for high selenium levels in B.C.’s Elk River
Mining company Teck Resources commits $600M to five-year cleanup plan
CBC News
Mar 21, 2013

Teck Coal facing serious water pollution in Elk Valley
MARK HUME
VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Mar. 21, 2013

‘Elk River is being poisoned’ by coal mining, study finds
MARK HUME
VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Mar. 21, 2013
Inside Teck’s Selenium Treatment Plant
Jacob Parry
BC Business
Jun 3, 2013

The Elk Valley Water Quality Plan

In April 2013 the BC Environment Minister issued an order to Teck Coal Ltd to “stabilize and reverse water quality concentrations for selenium, cadmium, nitrate and sulphate.”

A tremendous effort by Teck, governments (BC, Canada, US, MT), local communities and First Nations produced the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan.

In November 2014 the plan was accepted by the BC Minister of the Environment.

The Plan sets out [water quality] targets that were derived through a scientifically rigorous process to ensure continued aquatic and human health. Elk Valley Water Quality Plan

But then there’s this:

New reports shed light on Fording River pollution problems
MARK HUME
VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Oct. 12, 2014

And this:

A key message from the TAC’s Toxicology Working Group was that they reached agreement that the selenium level 1 toxicity benchmarks for the Fording River and Elk River can be characterized as a “best estimate with residual uncertainties”.

The members of the Working group agreed to disagree on the characterization of the benchmark as “protective” of fish and wildlife populations. Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, Technical Advisory Committee

Meeting 6 Notes

So, I’m curious about what’s going on.
Why don’t scientists agree? Where does the truth lie?

 

Is the Elk River watershed protected or not?