It’s time for Idaho’s senators to stand against selenium pollution in the Kootenai River

By Jennifer Ekstrom
Reader Contributor

The Kootenai River is one of the largest rivers in the state, and a true gem of North Idaho. Anglers come from all over to find an array of fish, including rainbow and cutthroat trout, and perhaps to catch a glimpse of the endangered Kootenai River white sturgeon. 

The river and surrounding lands offer a range of recreational opportunities; but, it can be difficult for someone standing on the banks of the river in Bonners Ferry to see there’s a problem within the water — mainly because the source of pollution is out of sight, out of mind — but this anglers’ paradise is in danger. 

Upstream, in Canada, coal mines are contaminating the Kootenai River watershed with selenium and other pollution, and have been wreaking havoc on the river for decades. 

The problem

Selenium is toxic in high concentrations; and, once it gets into our waterways, it makes its way up the food chain and causes harm to fish and wildlife. Toxic effects of selenium in fish can include reduced growth, deformities, reduced liver function and reduced reproduction. 

The biggest problem is reduced reproduction and declining numbers of fish.  

The main source of selenium pollution flowing into Montana and then into Idaho is from four massive mountain-top removal coal mines in the Elk River Valley in British Columbia. Selenium pollution is flowing from the mines down the Elk River into Lake Koocanusa, and then into the Kootenai River in North Idaho.

Since 2017, the population of westslope cutthroat trout in the upper Kootenai River watershed decreased by 93% due to selenium pollution. Anglers have even caught cutthroat trout in the upstream Fording River with no gill plates.

Other fish are feeling the effects, too. 

The Kootenai River is notable for two native and rare fish species: the white sturgeon and burbot. The endangered Kootenai River white sturgeon are some of the largest fish in North America and have lived in the Kootenai River since the time of the dinosaurs. The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho has dedicated decades of work to revive both the sturgeon and burbot — a sustenance fishery for them — but selenium pollution is hurting these efforts by causing reproductive problems for these fish and other species.

Along with undermining recovery efforts of endangered fish, selenium pollution poses a risk to people. Eating fish with high levels of selenium can be a human health hazard, and puts local communities — particularly those that eat high amounts of fish — at risk.

The solution

Idaho and Montana both have water quality limits for selenium that are meant to protect the watershed, and Teck Coal is violating them. 

Unless effective wastewater treatment is installed at the source, this pollution will continue to undermine our right to clean water.

Under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which established the framework that neither Canada nor the U.S. can pollute the waters of the other, the International Joint Commission (IJC) was created as an independent body to resolve transboundary water quality disputes. Because Teck Coal is violating Idaho and Montana selenium limits, we can use this treaty to hold them accountable for not meeting U.S. standards and get them to install the necessary wastewater treatment. 

The IJC is meeting this week and is ready to go to work for us if they get the go-ahead.

The Boundary Waters Treaty can help us; but, in order to use it, we need help from our political leaders. We have a historic opportunity to focus IJC efforts on the Kootenai River pollution dispute, but we need Idaho’s senators to get on board. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo need to join the many American political leaders who are asking that the IJC be allowed to resolve the pollution dispute. 

This solution would also allow the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, along with other tribes and First Nations on both sides of the border, to lead the effort by participating in an Indigenous-led transboundary Watershed Board. The tribes and First Nations deserve this leadership role in protecting their waterways and sustenance fisheries. 

You can speak up for clean water, threatened Idaho fisheries and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho today by asking Sens. Risch and Crapo to support an IJC reference for the Kootenai River. Together, we can protect this watershed from selenium pollution and hold Teck Resources accountable for polluting U.S. waters.

Visit to do your part in this effort.

For more information contact Jennifer Ekstrom, North Idaho Lakes Conservation associate at Idaho Conservation League: 208-318-5812 or [email protected].

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