Photos: Canada’s coal flows into Montana’s streams

Can U.S. pressure change a toxic legacy along this selenium-polluted river?

  • Dylan Forster, a young guide employed by fishing outfitter Paul Samycia, ties a fly in Fernie, British Columbia. A prime tourist destination for fly fishing. the sport accounts for a large chunk of the area's economy, despite the fact that Canada's five largest coal mines sit fewer than 20 miles upstream.

    Celia Talbot Tobin
  • A fly fishing boat floats the Elk River, which contains high levels of selenium from coal mine runoff.

    Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Elkview mine, located just outside Sparwood, British Columbia, is one of the five open pit coal mines along the Elk River. As the world’s second-largest exporter of steel-making coal, Teck brought in $3.05 billion in revenue in 2015 from their mines in British Columbia, (which includes one site not in the Elk Valley.)

    Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Hydrologist Dave Naftz, right, and Tom Cleasby, collect sediment samples on Lake Koocanusa. The lake is a roughly 90-mile-long reservoir roughly cut in half by the international border and fed by the Elk and Kootenai Rivers in British Columbia. It is the prime point of selenium studies for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, though much of the state's analysis only extends up to the border.

    Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Paul Samycia's youngest son, Sawyer, takes a quick break from the action during a barbeque dinner his dad throws for his guides the first weekend of fishing. “I have a young family, and I’m looking at ways to exit my business and not give it to my children,” Paul Samycia said. “Fishing can be their passion or pastime. But it’s not an industry that I would recommend them to get into, especially here. We don’t know what it’s going to do.”

    Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Coal is transported away from Elkview mine. In May 2016, the British Columbia Auditor General called out provincial mine regulators for failing to comply with environmental regulations over the past decade, supporting scientists’ assertion that the Elk River and the watershed north of Lake Koocanusa is in peril. The two-year report states that neither British Columbia’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, nor the Ministry of Environment, have effectively evaluated or enforced their own mine regulations.

    Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Paul Samycia, front left, chats with friends floating the Elk in an adjacent boat. Dilution, so far, has been the only solution considered along the Elk River, north of the international border. After selenium findings were published in a 2013 scientific paper, the British Columbian government ordered Teck Coal to openly address water quality issues. The eventual outcome was the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, approved in November 2014. The 2016 provincial audit released last May found the plan insufficient.

    Celia Talbot Tobin
  • Teck Coal has promised to meet specific short-, medium- and long-term goals to lower selenium levels in the river. Water monitoring stations along the river have individual selenium goals, with the lowest number closest to the border and the highest allowance immediately downstream of the mines.

    Celia Talbot Tobin

 

The teal waters of the Elk River meander roughly 140 miles through the mountainous southeast corner of British Columbia before they cross the international border into Montana.  For decades, the area has been lauded as one of the continent’s most fruitful ecosystems for fly fishing. The river also happens to drain Canada’s most productive coal country.

In 2013, a pair of American scientists published a study that confirmed the Elk is more polluted than previously thought. The river contains high levels of selenium, a poorly understood byproduct of mine waste. A naturally-occurring mineral, selenium is actually needed in tiny amounts to support healthy metabolism in animals. But mining and other industrial practices can cause it to accumulate to dangerously high levels in the environment, causing physical deformities and population crashes in fish and aquatic birds.

This past summer, the Environmental Protection Agency tightened its standard regulation for the mineral in U.S. waters to reflect the evolving science of its potential damage. At the same time, British Columbia has granted permits to expand four of the five coal mines nestled along the Elk River, setting the stage for more waste rock and more selenium in Canadian and U.S. waters.

As the U.S. government takes steps toward stricter pollution controls and Montana conducts its own selenium research on Lake Koocanusa, residents who call the Elk Valley home are feeling forgotten. Paul Samycia owns Elk River Guiding Company and is one of a handful of fly fishing outfitters in the small town of Fernie, British Columbia.  He appreciates the water treatment facility erected by Teck Coal, the company that owns the five mines, and he has faith that the U.S. will eventually pressure his own province into further protective action. Yet he can’t help but feel that it’s a low priority.  

“All the baselines and all the targets seem to be: What is the level of selenium crossing the border?” he said on a pebbled bank of the Elk last spring. “Why aren’t we concerned about the levels of selenium in the river right here, flowing by my house or by my business or through my town?”