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A fisherman enjoys the Elk River, near Fernie. A University of Montana study found selenium, nitrate and sulphate levels in the Elk River were up to 5,000 times higher than in the nearby Flathead River, which doesn’t get any run-off from coal mines.The Canadian Press

The British Columbia government has issued a ministerial order to Teck Coal Ltd. requiring the company to submit a plan for dealing with the high levels of selenium and other contaminants in the Elk Valley watershed.

The order, which was welcomed by the company as "a constructive way to move forward," covers both the Elk and Fording rivers and Lake Koocanusa, an international body of water that stretches across the U.S. border. High selenium levels have been recorded, raising worries about the impact it could have on cutthroat trout, water birds and aquatic insects.

Last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote to both the federal and provincial governments expressing concerns about the amount of selenium in Lake Koocanusa and last month a University of Montana study found selenium, nitrate and sulphate levels in the Elk River were up to 5,000 times higher than in the nearby Flathead River, which doesn't get any runoff from coal mines.

In a statement Monday, B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said the ministerial order defines specific environmental objectives, "such as protection of aquatic ecosystems, protection of human health and protection of groundwater."

Under the order Teck has 90 days to submit terms of reference for its plan, and one year to complete the plan once the terms have been approved.

Mr. Lake said a technical advisory committee will help guide the project, with participation expected from Teck, the Ktunaxa Nation Council, an independent third-party scientist and the governments of B.C., Canada, the U.S. and Montana.

"The province takes the issue of selenium and other contaminants in our water very seriously and … is taking action to invoke immediate change in the region's water quality trends," Mr. Lake stated.

Marcia Smith, Teck's senior vice-president for sustainability, said the company, which operates five coal mines in the Elk Valley, welcomes the government order.

"We think it's a positive step that will help create a regulatory basis to deal with the impacts of mining on the water quality in the Elk Valley. We think it will also help to establish a regulatory context for the permitting of any future mining activities," she said.

In an earlier interview, last week, Ms. Smith said Teck has already started dealing with the pollution problems.

"We know we have an issue and we are working hard to try and help resolve that issue," she said, noting the company expects to spend $600-million over the next five years on environmental projects, including water diversion and water treatment.

"We are certainly putting a lot of effort into it. We've got over 100 people in our company focused on selenium. And we are not a big company. Long before this hit the newspapers we've been working hard of this and we are quite proud of the work that we are doing," she said.

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