A decades-long dispute about between the United States and Canada regarding selenium levels in the Elk Creek watershed amplified in July when a letter from Americans on the International Joint Commission accused their Canadian counterparts of blocking the release of information on contaminants that are many times above guideline levels.
In the letter to the U.S. State Department, the Americans say their Canadian counterparts of sitting on damning new data about toxic chemicals from southern British Columbia coal mines in water shared by both countries, the Canadian Press reported.
“Canadian commissioners have not been willing to submit a report that addresses selenium pollution in transboundary waters of the Kootenay River drainage,” says the letter to the State Department’s director of Canadian affairs.
The commission was created in 1909 as a way to discuss water that crosses the U.S.-Canada border.
The B.C. dispute, brewing for decades, burst open in June when the commission's two Canadian members refused to endorse a report on selenium in the Elk River watershed just north of the border.
Trace amounts of selenium are healthy, but large doses can lead to gastrointestinal disorders, nerve damage, cirrhosis of the liver and even death in humans. In fish, it causes reproductive failure.
The report documents increasing selenium in Canadian water flowing into the transboundary Koocanusa reservoir.
All five waterways in the report have selenium levels at the maximum or above B.C.’s drinking water guidelines. Two are four times higher.
The study says the level of selenium in the Elk and Fording rivers is 70 times that in the Flathead River, which doesn't get runoff from five coal mines operated by Teck Resources.
In May, Teck reported selenium levels in Koocanusa exceeded both human health and aquatic life guidelines.
"High selenium concentrations are resulting in deformities and reproductive failure in trout and increasing fish mortality of up to 50 per cent in some portions of the Elk and Fording watersheds,'' the letter says.
Commission spokeswoman Sarah Lobrichon said the report is still being reviewed by commissioners on both sides.
Until all agree, the report won't go to either government, Lobrichon said.
Teck built a water treatment plant in 2014, but its operation has been intermittent and it is currently closed. It was converting selenium into a form more easily absorbed by plants and animals.
Teck Resources said in a statement that it does extensive water testing. It said selenium levels "are appropriate and protective of aquatic life'' and that fish populations haven't been affected.
The company said it's following a water quality plan and will spend up to $900 million over the next five years on new treatment plants.
An Environment Canada spokesman said new coal mine regulations are coming for toxins such as selenium.
Mark Johnson said Teck was fined $1.4 million in 2017 over selenium discharges. The company is being investigated for further violations.
Hill said Teck is obliged to stabilize selenium levels by the end of the decade. After that, levels are to start dropping.