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Montana news about the environment, natural resources, wildlife, climate change and more.

Debate over Lake Koocanusa pollution standards continues

Libby Dam on Lake Koocanusa in northwest Montana.
Libby Dam on Lake Koocanusa in northwest Montana.

The state Department of Environmental Quality is at odds with a governor-appointed board over a rule that could limit pollution levels in a northwest Montana lake.

The Board of Environmental Review is calling into question a 2020 DEQ rule setting a new standard to rein in selenium flowing from British Columbia coal mines into the trans-boundary Lake Koocanusa. High levels of selenium have been shown to harm fish reproduction.

Last week the board sided with a B.C mining company that petitioned for the pollution rule to get thrown out.

Board Chairman Steve Ruffatto argued that the agency erred in its methods, invalidating the rule.

"Again, it’s very clear that the statute requires the department, in my mind, to initiate new rulemaking so it’s got a proper notice and proper procedure to get there.”

DEQ attorney Kirsten Bowers pointed to a new state law that stripped the board of its authority over the rulemaking process, transferring that authority solely within DEQ.

"I appreciate your sentiments, but they’re outside your jurisdiction and advisory only,” Bowers said.

Ruffatto on Monday declined to comment further about what the board’s decision will do in practice, saying the board still needs to issue its decision in writing.

DEQ told a committee of lawmakers studying the selenium issue Monday that it will undertake a public process over the next several months to support its position that the new selenium standard is in compliance with state and federal law.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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