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One fish, two fish, two-headed Koocanu-fish?

| March 14, 2023 1:00 AM

Why is Montana state Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, proposing a bill — HB473, that would double the amount of selenium allowed to pollute Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River watershed?

Gunderson is quoted in the Flathead Beacon, (Libby Lawmaker Introduces Bill to Weaken Selenium Safeguard on Lake Koocanusa, Feb. 17, 2023) asking “Where is the two-headed trout?” Further stating, “Nobody has documented any of the supposed damage to the fish.”

Not so fast.

Photographs of deformed trout, some two-headed, surfaced in a study assessing the impacts of increased selenium concentrations commissioned by the J.R. Simplot Company. Similar to what Gunderson is proposing in HB473, Simplot wanted to increase selenium discharge above national and state standards at its southeastern Idaho phosphate mine. Their own study noted devasting impacts to fish.

The 694-page 2010 study, prepared for Simplot by Formation Environmental, of Boulder, Colo., and HabiTech, of Laramie, Wyo., containing pictures of the trout, is titled “Interpretive Findings for Field and Laboratory Studies and Literature Review in Support of a Site-Specific Selenium Criterion, Smoky Canyon Mine.” The study found increased levels of selenium caused a variety of mutations in brown trout. The Smoky Canyon Mine is now a Superfund site, something we’re already long familiar with.

Teck coal mines sit along the Elk River and have been leaching selenium and nitrogen into the river for decades. Selenium in Lake Koocanusa already exceeds the Department of Environmental Quality standard of one microgram per liter due to pollution from upstream coal mining. Gunderson’s logic seems to be, if you can’t meet the standard, raise it.

Why propose a bill that risks the health and well-being of humans, fish, and wildlife to benefit an upstream Canadian coal company?

Selenium is a natural poison that seeps from rocks and dirt and accumulates in the food chain. It can cause illness and deformities in people, livestock, and wildlife. Selenium can affect human health, causing hair and fingernail loss and numbness in fingers and toes. However, selenium is far more dangerous to aquatic egg-bearing animals like fish, birds, and reptiles with young failing to hatch or hatching with serious deformities — missing eyes, misshapen beaks, and protruding brains.

Selenium’s presence in the environment is directly associated with coal mining. Do we want to impact the reproduction and survivability of Montana’s native fish and other wildlife for coal and Teck’s bottom line?

We should not be legislating science. There is a public process in place to change a water quality standard that must be followed. The process involves citizen stakeholders and uses the best available science. This process was followed to set the current, much lower standard. It is clear Lake Koocanusa is being impacted by an upstream source of selenium. It is very clear the source is Teck Resources Ltd., now calling their metallurgic coal mining, Elk Valley Resources Ltd. They’ve changed the name, but it doesn’t change the problem. We have years of data documenting an increase in the amount of selenium entering Montana from Canada.

So, what is motivating Rep. Gunderson to sell out Montana’s environment and citizens for a Canadian mine? Perhaps he thinks a two-headed fish will double his luck at fishing?

Chris Bachman is the conservation director for the Yaak Valley Forest Council, which monitors water quality and ecosystem health in northwest Montana’s Yaak Valley.