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Doubts downstream

Residents of Libby, Mont., have heard selenium from Canadian coal mines isn’t a threat. But trust in industry is hard to come by after hundreds here died from minerals contaminated with asbestos.

This 2010 aerial photo shows the town of Libby, Mont., where mine workers were sickened and killed by exposure to asbestos.
This 2010 aerial photo shows the town of Libby, Mont., where mine workers were sickened and killed by exposure to asbestos.Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press

Walking the streets of Libby, Mont., on a hazy September day, it’s not uncommon to hear the cough of a local resident.

The picturesque, blue-collar town about an hour southwest of the Canada-U.S. Border in Montana’s north was once bustling with jobs thanks to nearby vermiculite mines. The work helped line locals’ wallets with steady pay.

And lined their lungs with toxic asbestos dust.

Years of remediation have helped make the town of about 2,700 safe again following what government officials called the worst case of industrial poisoning of a community in American history. But residents are still struggling to rebuild after hundreds died, and approximately 2,400 have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases.

Now, some are worried about another threat: selenium from coal mines more than 200 kilometres north in British Columbia that flows into rivers and lakes south of the border. They’re also troubled by the response — or lack thereof — from both Canadian officials and Teck Resources, the mining company, which is also considering an expansion.

Teck says its current scientific understanding indicates that, at present, selenium levels in the reservoir that supplies the town are safe. Teck also notes that it is working toward the goal of “stabilizing and reducing the selenium trend” in B.C.‘s Elk Valley, upriver from the reservoir.

Some scientists, Montana parks officials and residents are skeptical of those claims.

“I think it’s ridiculous. Totally ridiculous, because I think the whole town should be made aware of this. We don’t want our river polluted,” says Libby resident Gayla Benefield, 79.

“I haven’t heard a peep … it’s just history repeating itself.”

'Just the dust'

Benefield has a deep knowledge of the town’s tragic history with vermiculite mining and what it did to the workers. Her father was one of them.

When she was younger and working as a meter reader for the local power company, her job took her to yards across the community. There, she would often encounter men her father had worked with in the mines, sitting on back porches with oxygen tanks.

“What are you doing?” Benefield would ask.

“Well, I can’t breathe anymore,” the men would say. “So, I just got to stay home.”

“Why can’t you breathe?”

“Well,” they said. “It’s just the dust.”

The naturally occurring mineral known as vermiculite, mined in Libby since the 1920s, turned out to contain asbestos. Subsequent reporting revealed the company that owned the mine knew the mineral was contaminated, but didn’t tell its workers, even as they died.

Gayla Benefield wipes her eyes outside her home in Libby, Mont., in 2010. She raised concerns in 1999 about an asbestos-related lung disease that was killing workers at Libby's W.R. Grace vermiculite mine, including members of her own family. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first rolled into town in 1999, responding to what had become an undeniable crisis when an alarming number of people exposed to asbestos grew sick with asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Eventually, the EPA called what happened in Libby the worst case of industrial poisoning of a community in American history. It’s unknown how many people died, but in 2021, the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology estimated the number to be close to 700.

Many didn’t have what could be called a “good death.”

Some people saw their loved ones slowly suffocate, drowning in their own bodily fluids. Others have suffered both the loss of their loved ones and the lingering effects of diseases that have yet to claim them.

Benefield has had lung cancer three times and bladder cancer twice. She’s on oxygen. Every six months, she goes for radiation therapy. Her asbestos-related diseases are slowly killing her, and four of her five children. She also watches her grandchildren for symptoms, as doctors have advised residents to be mindful of signs of illness.

She still gets angry when she thinks about it — about what happened then, and about what’s happening now.

A new threat

Montana Republican state representative Steve Gunderson clutches the side of a speedboat as it races across Lake Koocanusa.

Clad in a black windbreaker, cargo pants and a ballcap, Gunderson is dressed to join representatives from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who are testing fish.

WATCH | This Montana town’s tragic history has led to a mistrust of mining companies:

In Libby, Mont., mine workers were sickened and killed by exposure to asbestos. Today, they're finding it difficult to trust promises from Canadian coal companies.

The 145-kilometre reservoir straddles the B.C.-Montana border, acting as a catchment for water that begins high up in the B.C. Rockies and eventually crosses paths with some of the largest open-pit coal mines in Canada. The waste rock from those mines contains selenium, a naturally occurring chemical that is a byproduct of the mining process.

The water flows down from the Elk River, which is part of the Kootenay River Basin — spelled Kootenai when it veers into the U.S. The vast watershed snakes from B.C. into Montana and Idaho, where it turns north into B.C. again before heading back south, feeding into the mighty Columbia River.

Parks officials have expressed concerns about the concentration of selenium coming down from the Elk River. An agency official says selenium levels above EPA limits have been found in fish from Lake Koocanusa. Others, like Gunderson, who is also the standing chairman of the state’s house natural resources committee, argue that they haven’t yet seen these feared impacts.

“Have selenium levels risen? Yes, they have. But are they rising at an alarming rate? No, they aren’t,” he says.

Conservation groups and researchers worry the chemical could lead to reproductive failure in fish populations. At high enough levels, exposure to selenium has been linked to deformities in fish.

Selenium is an element essential for human health and occurs naturally in the environment. However, Health Canada says overexposure to high levels of selenium, though rare among humans, may lead to hair loss, muscle weakness, reduced brain function and stomach and intestinal disorder.

Near Lake Koocanusa, Dale White is camping in the area as he often does. The Montana resident says the selenium issue comes up in conversation among friends and family on an almost weekly basis and because he’s an angler, he’s worried about its impact on fish populations.

“We want [the mines] to quit,” he says. “Nobody’s doing anything.”

Dale White, a Montana angler camping near Lake Koocanusa on Sept. 14, says he’s worried about selenium leaking into the water supply from Canadian coal mines. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Vancouver-based Teck Resources, which operates some of B.C.’s largest coal mining operations, has had to work with the district of Sparwood, B.C., to close wells in the past because selenium levels had exceeded provincial standards considered safe for drinking water.

The four active open-pit mines account for more than 30,000 jobs and contribute about $4.6 billion to B.C.’s gross domestic product, according to a February report released by the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Rocks containing valuable metallurgical coal also naturally contain selenium, which is left onsite in discarded rock piles. The waste rock is then exposed to rainwater, leaches out of the rock and flows downstream.

And though the debate surrounding selenium in the Elk River mostly revolves around fish and aquatic life, some researchers say studying its impacts on human health has so far been an afterthought.

We’re going to have leaching from those mines for decades to come.

Erin Sexton, University of Montana senior scientist

According to University of Montana senior scientist Erin Sexton, there is already a “legacy” of contamination in the Elk River watershed.

“It’s problematic and it’s been there for a really long time,” says Sexton, who has traced contaminants, including selenium, above baseline levels in the Elk River.

“We’re going to have leaching from those mines for decades to come.”

Findings like hers are why parks officials are on the lake today, catching fish for further testing.

Montana Republican state representative Steve Gunderson on a boat on Lake Koocanusa on Sept. 14.
Montana Republican state representative Steve Gunderson joined Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials as they tested fish for toxins on Lake Koocanusa on Sept. 14. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

After all the nets have been drawn from the lake, Gunderson gets in a vehicle to head back to Libby, where he grew up. He sits in the passenger seat, chatting as the state’s natural beauty flutters past.

As he talks, Gunderson is suddenly hit by a coughing fit, his asbestosis aggravated by smoke from nearby wildfires. He stops, short of breath.

“I’m pretty fortunate that I’m still sucking air,” he says. “I know it’s a cliche, but I’m on borrowed time, so I try to make the best of it.”

Gunderson is far from the only person in the community still suffering the effects of what happened here.

“Welcome to Libby,” he says as the vehicle rounds the bend into the community. “We call it poverty with a view.”

Today, Libby is home to around 2,700 residents, many of whom are still dealing with asbestos-related diseases. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

The dead and those who remain

While the known risks associated with selenium do not compare to those of asbestos, a deadly carcinogen, the reason many Libby residents are troubled about the elevated levels has much to do with the town’s tragic history.

For decades, Libby’s local economy relied heavily on the mining and logging industries. For a time, the town produced up to 80 per cent of the world’s supply of vermiculite, a naturally-occurring mineral that comes in the form of shiny flakes that expand when heated and are often used in gardening and as insulation. W. R. Grace and Company purchased the mines in 1963.

The vermiculite produced there was used in the town’s homes, businesses, public buildings and landscaping, finding its way into virtually all aspects of daily life. Residents even remember children playing on Little League fields covered with the mineral.

But the asbestos contaminating the vermiculite meant illnesses in the town began to pile up.

Road workers in Libby, Mont., wear gear to protect against possible asbestos contamination as they load material from a road resurfacing project in the downtown area in April 2011. (Matthew Brown/The Associated Press)

Benefield’s father, Perley Vatland, a long-time mine worker, was sick for years and didn’t know why until 1974, when he was diagnosed with asbestosis.

She said he was heartbroken, because he loved working for W.R. Grace and initially thought the company was doing everything it could to help him. He died that same year.

Benefield’s mother, Margaret Vatland, was diagnosed with asbestosis in 1985, having been exposed to the asbestos her husband brought home on his clothes and in his car. She was on oxygen for 10 years, and Benefield says she was angry up until the day she died in 1996.

“She said, ‘You get the bastards,’ ” Benefield recalls.

“That was the last thing she said. She said, ‘Get the bastards.’ And I said, ‘I will. I will.’ ”

Gayla Benefield holds a photo of her mother at her home in Libby, on Feb. 17, 2010. She lost her mother and father to asbestosis, which was linked to vermiculite mining. Benefield herself has had lung cancer three times and bladder cancer once, and four of her five children also have been affected. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

Benefield sued W.R. Grace in 1998 for the wrongful death of her mother, winning the case and bringing to light the scope of what was going on in Libby. Local media picked up the story and the EPA began investigating the following year.

The agency would eventually declare the community a Superfund site — its designation for areas representing environmental emergencies and natural disasters — and spent more than $400 million on cleanup.

For years, Benefield says she became a sort of pariah in the company town, catching flak from those who thought her efforts to expose the asbestos tragedy would destroy Libby’s industry.

“The real tragedy is politically, it became a total political thing to business people … who really refused to admit that there was a problem and to try to hinder the people that were trying to clean up,” she says. “But now, basically all the people involved are dying.”

In 2014, the EPA said most of the risk in Libby had been mitigated, but cleanup continues, and the city’s Asbestos Resource Program operates on an indefinite basis.

Amanda Harcourt, director of Libby’s Asbestos Resource Program, holds up a sample box displaying materials that were mined. The middle of the top row shows raw vermiculite broken down. It was often used in construction materials and as soil amendments in gardens. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

'Where’s the two-headed trout?’

Gunderson, the state representative, is hopeful that the community might round a corner one day and that industries like logging and coal mining might make a comeback.

In his role on the house natural resources committee, he has heard all about concerns surrounding selenium in the state’s water supply.

In 2020, the EPA demanded an explanation from B.C. as to why selenium was leaking from coal mines operated by Teck Resources. One year later, Teck was fined $60 million under the federal Fisheries Act after pleading guilty to contaminating provincial waterways.

Gunderson, a proponent for resource development, says he suspects environmental standards are being used as a weapon to stop Canadian coal mining, and would ultimately be used by NGOs in the U.S. to stop or slow development.

He often highlights a four-page colour ad from Montana Trout Unlimited, a U.S.-based water conservation non-profit, that suggested selenium had led to two-headed trout.

“That’s become my mantra. Every time, at a meeting on the record in the public, I ask, ‘Where are the two-headed trout if the selenium level is so bad? Where’s the two-headed trout?’ ”

A Montana Trout Unlimited flyer shows a photo of a two-headed trout and warns about what it says are the effects of selenium poisoning. (Montana Trout Unlimited)

The two-headed trout have long been seen as a symbol of worst-case pollution impact, and the lack of such deformities are often cited by those advocating for looser water level standards.

David Brooks, the executive director with Montana Trout Unlimited, says the organization chose to use a rare image of a two-headed trout in its literature to catch people’s attention, as he says visually portraying population-level impacts in fish would be more difficult.

Beyond opposition from Gunderson and Teck itself, Brooks says setting standards for selenium has not been controversial. “It has actually been quite amenable between agencies and the scientists and advocacy groups.”

Gunderson stands beside his vehicle, decorated with an American flag, which he says makes it easy for constituents to spot him in the community. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Sexton, the University of Montana scientist, says that two-headed trout aren’t the point. At the current levels of toxicity, she says reproductive issues can arise and fish eggs will fail to hatch. In other words, there will be no trout, two-headed or otherwise.

“You never want to get anywhere close to those thresholds in your fish tissue,” she says. “We’re past that threshold in several species of fish. We are already, in my mind, at a crisis place with selenium in this watershed.”

Teck, meanwhile, argues that the current scientific understanding of selenium indicates that levels in the Koocanusa Reservoir are safe for fish and are not impacting fish populations.

According to the company, the allowable levels of selenium in Montana and Idaho are not reasonable, and it has been petitioning Montana’s Board of Environmental Review to challenge the state’s water quality standards.

The company has also invested $1.2 billion into water quality so far, with a plan to invest a further $750 million over the next two years. It says its three water treatment facilities now remove about 95 per cent of selenium from its water.

“Teck is committed to protecting water quality on both sides of the border, including Koocanusa Reservoir,” said Chris Stannell, public relations manager with Teck, in an email.

Teck declined a request for an on-camera interview.

Jim Dunnigan, seated at left, a biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, removes fish caught in gillnets as part of the department’s annual fisheries monitoring program at Lake Koocanusa near Eureka, Mont., on Sept. 14. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Sexton says it’s Teck’s responsibility to ensure selenium levels are stabilized, and notes that she and other researchers haven’t been able to verify the company’s raw data.

Montana parks officials are also concerned about selenium concentrations they’ve found in fish tissue over several decades. This is their primary method of testing selenium levels in the water.

In 2020, four of nine fish species they collected showed selenium levels that exceeded EPA standards. They don’t yet have data for 2021 or 2022.

“It warrants further investigation into tracking that through time,” says Jim Dunnigan, a biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He notes that these types of “legacy impacts” can stretch on for decades and are his agency’s main concern.

Teck is committed to protecting water quality on both sides of the border, including Koocanusa Reservoir.

Chris Stannell, Teck public relations manager

And the issue isn’t just limited to the reservoir. The agency has collected samples downstream of the Libby Dam, and their counterparts in Idaho have found similar results. The agency says it is skeptical of Teck’s claims that it is removing 95 per cent of selenium from the water.

“Teck has not publicly stated what percentage of the water within the area remains untreated,” reads an email from the parks agency.

“The observed waterborne concentrations in the Elk River are a testament that the company’s water treatment facilities are inadequate.”

The difficulty of setting standards

Currently, B.C. sets its limit for selenium at 10 micrograms per litre for drinking water and 2 micrograms per litre for aquatic life. The EPA’s limit for aquatic life is 1.5 micrograms per litre.

Through a joint process with Montana that began in 2015, both jurisdictions came close to an agreed upon standard for aquatic life in 2020, B.C. at 0.85, Montana at 0.8.

The U.S. has moved to implement the new standard, but B.C. so far hasn’t done the same, which Sexton calls an unnecessary delay.

“We really haven’t heard anything since, it’s been complete crickets,” she says.

According to the new standard set by Montana, selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa have regularly exceeded acceptable levels since at least 2013, but they fall below the unchanged 2 micrograms per litre standard set by B.C.

Fish eggs tested in the lake are beginning to show levels above what the EPA considers safe.

Sexton says this is due to the highly elevated selenium levels upstream, close to the mine sites in the Elk River, where levels are now routinely found to be well above even the B.C. drinking water standard of 10 micrograms per litre. Some water observations in the Elk River below the mines are more than 20 times the limit set by Montana downstream, according to ECCC data.

A diplomatic issue

With so many governments and interest groups involved, jurisdictional issues abound, and the question of what standards to follow and how to enforce them has driven calls for a new approach.

A chorus of First Nations, state governments, NGOs and others worried about the impact of selenium on the waterways want Canada and the U.S. to request an investigation by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a bi-national body that has managed water and air issues affecting both countries since it was formed in 1909.

These requests, called references, allow the IJC to appoint a board of experts who study the issue and recommend solutions.

Many see it as an important next step in getting a handle on the selenium issue, because of what they say are inadequate regulatory actions from B.C. and Canada.

A U.S. State Department official told CBC News the Biden administration supports a joint reference to the International Joint Commission, but said it would not comment on diplomatic discussions. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

One legal expert calls B.C.’s approach to environmental regulation in the Elk Valley “a history of negligence.”

“It’s a pathetic history, where the government of British Columbia has been called out by the auditor general of British Columbia for regulatory failure,” said Calvin Sandborn, senior counsel at the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre.

A spokesperson for Canada’s natural resource minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, deferred comment to the province of British Columbia, which said it’s working to improve water quality in the Elk River Valley without involving the IJC.

Environment and Climate Change Canada, meanwhile, said in an email that it continues to work on new selenium regulations under the federal Fisheries Act. The email said Canada hasn’t rejected the possibility of a reference to the IJC.

But as Teck considers further expansion of coal mining in the region, some say the IJC could inject critical, unbiased research and recommendations focused on science to help propel the region past what Sandborn calls one of the biggest selenium pollution problems in the world.

The six IJC commissioners recently wrote to both U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, urging both governments to consider a joint reference.

The letter also noted that the IJC would act on a request from the U.S. without involving Canada — something it’s never done before.

In its preliminary work, the commission has heard from local First Nations, particularly the Ktunaxa, who live close to Teck’s mine expansion proposal. They say the selenium issue is ongoing and will escalate, especially if the mining expansion goes ahead.

Things will never really be the same

It’s unclear at this stage whether the selenium issue will reach the International Joint Commission, whether Teck will proceed with its plan to expand mining operations, or whether the pollution will have the lasting effects that some scientists fear it could.

For some Libby residents, the dread of a new pollution lingers, compounded by the grief and trauma of the asbestos tragedy. Cleanup has been going on for 22 years and the community is trying to move on.

In April 2011, D.C. Orr, then a Libby city councillor, stands atop a large hill of bark and wood chips contaminated with undetermined levels of asbestos. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

However, Benefield, who fought to expose what was happening at the vermiculite mine, is still angry.

She’s angry that no one acted until it was too late, because they were afraid of impacting the town’s reputation or the industry’s bottom line.

She’s angry when she stops to think of what W.R. Grace did to her family and her friends — reassuring them conditions were safe and that their health issues were unrelated to the minerals being mined even as they died.

She’s angry when she trips over the cord of her oxygen tank.

So when she hears a new mining company saying that selenium levels are safe, she finds it hard to trust them.

“It makes me angry that I’m 79, and not 59,” she says. “Because I’d be out beating the drums again.”

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