From B.C. to Idaho and back

From B.C. to Idaho and back r1 ... SHARE THIS NEWSLETTER | BECOME A MEMBER The Narwhal's masthead logo Reporter Ainslie Cruickshank speaking with Erin Sexton, a research scientist at the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station, on the Koocanusa Reservoir just above Libby Dam. Abnormal gills, curved spines, mortality: it’s no secret that selenium pollution can severely disrupt fish species.

It’s also not a secret where some of these issues are originating: downstream of Teck Resources’ coal mines in the Elk Valley of southeastern British Columbia.

So just how big of a problem is it? Well, we traced it — from B.C. to Idaho and back.

Reporter Ainslie Cruickshank has long been reporting on Teck’s mines in the Elk Valley and we knew The Narwhal was overdue for an update on the downstream impacts of the selenium pollution that can wreak havoc not just on the fish, but also on the communities that depend on them.

So, back in the fall, after months of prep work, Ainslie and photographer Jesse Winter took a six-day trip along the route of the pollutant to learn more. The result is this sprawling feature that transports you to the rivers and lakes where scientists, Indigenous leaders and conservationists are noticing the fish just aren’t the same. Then, the story zooms out to tie it all together with maps, jaw-dropping data and details about the disparity between Canadian and U.S. rules that may surprise you.

Oh, and while we’re all talking about this story, I have a wee bit of news to share: we’re thrilled to be bringing Ainslie on as our first-ever B.C. biodiversity reporter! Ainslie has been breaking stories for years in the Toronto Star, The Walrus and here at The Narwhal — and now you can expect even more in-depth coverage as she joins our pod as a full-time staff member.

Ainslie reached out to Teck for this story to try and learn more about the company’s investments in water treatment measures, but as for getting info on just how much of its mines’ wastewater is being treated? Well, Teck wouldn’t say (and neither, for that matter, would the B.C. government). The company declined to make anyone available for an interview and instead chose to respond to written questions by email.
Three people stand on a highway looking out over a Teck Resources coal mine
“I live in the Elk Valley and I thank you for this research and story,” writes Jen, a Narwhal reader. “Teck claims they’ve lowered the selenium levels with the water plant upgrade. As with all things industry and environmental, there needs to be more accountability for pollution. Coal mining is the main industry here, so people don't talk about the severity of what Teck is doing to the planet. And for those who do talk about it — ‘the new water treatment plant took care of that.’ ”

All eyes are now on the B.C. government, which is weighing stricter standards at the same time Teck is pitching an expansion of its mines. Those new water quality rules lag behind a stringent new selenium standard implemented downstream in Montana — a standard Teck’s lawyers are fighting.

I chatted with Ainslie and Jesse to learn more about their journey from B.C.’s Elk Valley to Montana’s Libby Dam to Idaho’s farmlands. Read our conversation below, then keep scrolling for some exciting news from our Ontario bureau.

Take care and don’t be the source of the problem,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience

Tell me a little about how this piece came together. What was the planning process like ahead of your trip?

Ainslie: The Narwhal has done a lot of reporting over the years about the selenium pollution from Teck’s Elk Valley coal mines and this idea to trace the selenium from the mines down through Montana and Idaho and back into B.C. grew out of that previous coverage as a way to help show the full extent of the contamination. We first started talking about this story last spring and then the planning slowly came together over the summer in between other work.

I started reaching out to scientists, First Nations and Tribal governments and environmental groups to see if we could arrange to meet with them on the ground, to see first-hand the work they were doing to try to understand the extent of the selenium pollution and the impacts it was having on ecosystems downstream of the mines.

Logistically, the planning was a bit challenging just trying to schedule meetings with a number of different groups in different locations, so that we could do the story in one trip. We asked Teck if we could set up a tour of the company’s water treatment facilities and do an in-person interview, because we wanted to be able to actually show readers some of the steps the company was taking to address the selenium contamination, but unfortunately we were told they couldn’t accommodate the request. The last hurdle was securing our U.S. visas. Typically, we wouldn’t need one to do this kind of a trip but there were still restrictions in place at the land border because of COVID, so we wanted to make sure we could cross without any issues.

When did you go on the trip and how long did it take?

Ainslie: We took the trip in mid-October 2021 over six days. I think we travelled more than 2,000 kilometres over the course of that week.

Jesse: While we didn’t plan with this in mind, the timing meant that the larch trees in the Kootenays and Montana were at their peak. Some of the valleys were painted nearly solid gold, which made for some really lovely drives through the mountains.
Jesse photographing as Andres Gonzalez, a longtime guide, shows him a westslope cutthroat trout on the Elk River in Fernie, BC
What was the biggest challenge in reporting or photographing this story?

Jesse: The biggest challenge for me was finding a visual narrative that would connect with readers when the problem we’re talking about — the selenium itself — is invisible. Access to the mines was also a challenge. We asked Teck if we could visit their expensive new water treatment plants and show readers that element as well, but the company refused. In the end I tried to focus on the story’s main characters and landscapes of the river itself, which meant a lot of early mornings trying to catch the best light.

Ainslie: For me, it was really just trying to wrangle all the information and scenes from the on-the-ground reporting I collected into a cohesive story. I had about 13 hours of recorded interviews, tuned in online to meetings about the problem, went through the government’s 2021 inspection records for Teck’s mines, read through various reports about the selenium issue and looked at water quality data government agencies in the U.S. and Canada had collected over the years. So when it came time to write the piece, it felt a little overwhelming because I think in some ways any of the elements we touched on could have been their own stories. Luckily, I had a great editor, Carol [Linnitt], who knows this issue really well from her own reporting.

What was your favourite experience from the reporting trip?

Jesse: The serendipity of meeting and photographing fishing guide Dave Blackburn. We had been scouting along the river below the Libby Dam and I was hoping to find folks out fishing to add some personality to the scene. As I’m standing there, a river boat with three fishermen comes floating towards me and just as they’re about to pass, one of them actually catches a fish right in front of me! River guide Dave Blackburn (centre) watches as a client catches a fish on the Kootenai River below the Libby Dam in Montana. Jesse photographs Blackburn fishing. The river was moving fast enough that I didn’t have time to really speak to them other than to wave and give a thumbs up. Later that day Ainslie was calling river guiding companies in the area looking for a guide to interview, and it turns out that Dave was the guide in the boat I’d happened to photograph! We met him early the next morning, Ainslie interviewed him over coffee and I got to make some more frames of him casting a fly rod in beautiful morning light.

Ainslie: After spending so much time reporting from a desk in my living room during the pandemic, just getting out into the field and meeting all these really interesting people was a highlight. I had written about the selenium pollution from Teck’s mines a number of times over the last few years, so I was really keen to visit these places and see first hand what is at risk.
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Introducing: Political Climate

Ontario election season is here and our team is ready to bring you all the important updates with our Political Climate newsletter! Bureau chief Denise Balkissoon and reporters Fatima Syed and Emma McIntosh will be delivering fact checks and exclusive updates from the campaign trail every Tuesday until voting day, which is set for June 2. Want in on the action? Go here to sign up.

Our bureau has been busy breaking stories about Ontario’s most pressing environmental issues, from the state of the Greenbelt to the Ford government’s track record over the past four years. There’ll be plenty more scoops and in-depth analysis to come as the parties gear up for an election that will shape the future of climate policy in the province.

As our editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist put it on Twitter, “Come for the sweet comic-book graphics! Stay for your weekly dose of @fatimabsyed @balkissoon & @EmmaMci on all things environment and #onpoli.”

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