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Canada, U.S. agree to study transboundary water pollution concerns in Kootenay watershed

Ktunaxa Nation governments have been seeking an International Joint Commission reference for over a decade
Fording Coal’s “Greenhills” mountaintop removal coal mine, near Elkford, Elk Valley, B.C. beside the Flathead Valley. Garth Lenz photo.

Canada, the United States and the Ktunaxa Nation have agreed to seek a reference to the International Joint Commission (IJC) to study water pollution concerns in the Elk-Kootenai watershed, and hope to have a governance structure in place by the end of June.

The Ktunaxa Nation have been seeking a reference to the IJC for over a decade based on ongoing concerns with mining pollution in the Elk River and Koocanusa Reservoir stemming from coal mining activities in the Elk Valley.

Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council welcomed the announcement, while noting that there’s more work to be done over the coming months and years.

“I think it’s something that we’ve been pushing for for quite some time, and have made numerous interventions to try to get this happening,” said Teneese. “After many years of pushing for it, we’re extremely happy that finally we’re going to have an independent body look at the issues and the effects of pollution on the Elk and Kootenay watersheds.”

Ktunaxa Nation calls for meetings with Canada, U.S. to address Kootenay watershed pollution

The IJC is guided by the Boundary Waters Act, a treaty signed between Canada and the United States in 1909, which provides a framework for preventing and resolving transboundary water issues between the two countries.

Specifically, Canada and the United States are asking the IJC to create a study board for two years that will convene experts and knowledge holders to coordinate transparent transboundary data collection and knowledge sharing.

The transboundary aspect is significant, particularly for the Ktunaxa Nation and Ktunaxa Nation governments on both sides of the international border.

“One of the key matters is the fact that we’ve been able to have a united Ktunaxa voice, both south and north of the 49th [parallel] that says this is our homeland and we’re all concerned and we’re not going to be bound by this imaginary line that divided our Nation,” Teneese said.

“And we recognize that as a Nation and a collectivity of Ktunaxa people, we have responsibility to ensure that our homeland is protected for future generations.

In a press release, Gary Aitken Jr., Vice Chairman of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, said he is glad that Canada and the United States are taking their commitments to Indigenous peoples seriously.

“For decades, mining has impacted our waters, our people, and our resources. While we were seeking action, things moved far too slowly, and the federal government looked the other way,” said Aitken Jr. “We are finally starting a process where there can be collaboration, trust, and transparency. Ktunaxa said we would not stop until there was an action plan, and we look forward to seeing that through to ensure the real work of healing the river is achieved.”

Michael Dolson, Chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, concurred.

“For too long, the U.S. and Canada have stood by while our waters suffered,” Dolson said, “We are encouraged by the federal governments’ change in direction and the progress that was achieved when we all worked together these past months. We will continue to work tirelessly to restore our rivers and the fish and wildlife that depend upon them. We’re at the beginning of what will likely be a long process, one that will require sustained effort from all governments involved.”

The participation in a reference to the IJC was announced in a joint statement by both Canadian and American ambassadors, following a commitment made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden to address water pollution concerns in the Elk-Kootenai watershed during a bilateral meeting last year.

“Complementing additional efforts currently underway throughout the Elk-Kootenay watershed, and together with the IJC and our partners in the region, Canada and the United States welcome the opportunity to further our collaboration on this important work,” reads the statement from Kirsten Hillman, Canadian ambassador to the U.S., and David Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Canada.

Over the last number of years, a reference to the IJC has been supported by Ktunaxa Nation governments and the U.S. State Department. However, the Canadian government had been hesitant to make a commitment, allegedly due to pressure from the B.C. government amid concerns over jurisdiction and regulatory authority.

B.C., Teck opposed to international study of Kootenay watershed pollution

In a statement attributed to four B.C. cabinet ministers with portfolios ranging from mining, environment, Indigenous relations, and water and land stewardship, the provincial government said it welcomed the process.

“We have reviewed the proposal for a reference to the International Joint Commission and British Columbia is committed to fully engage in this process,” reads the statement. “In its proposed role as a neutral facilitator, the International Joint Commission is uniquely positioned to assist in building crucial relationships and trust across this key international watershed.

“We look forward to collaborating with governments, First Nations and community partners, as we work together to accelerate our joint efforts to enhance and protect water quality in the Elk-Kootenay/Kootenai watershed.”

Speaking from the B.C. Legislature with Black Press, environment minister George Heyman said the province’s resistance stemmed from concerns over duplication of environmental regulations that he noted the province is already doing.

However, Heyman said the province looked carefully at the commitments made by Prime Minister Trudeau and U.S. President Biden and engaged with the federal government on what an IJC reference would look like.

“We see it as being additive,” said Heyman. “We think they’ll play an important role as a neutral third party, bringing First Nations on both sides of the border, the two governments together, and state and provincial governments on matters of improving water quality and being able to validate facts and issues and give us information that will be useful as we progress in improving the water quality treatment in the Elk Valley and Kootenay watersheds.”

The provincial government noted the $1.4 billion that has been invested by Teck Resources Ltd. into the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan. According to a progress report issued last fall, Teck says it has constructed treatment capacity of 77.5 million litres of water per day, that removes between 95-99 per cent of selenium from treated water.

However, Teck was also recently fined $15.5 million by the province, after it was found to not be in compliance with a condition to have a water treatment facility operational at the Fording River South coal mine by a December 2018 deadline.

UPDATED: Teck Coal fined $16M for water quality permit violations in Elk Valley

That facility was up and running by July 2022, as Teck blamed the delay on needing time to implement a fix for a water treatment challenge as well as construction issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fine was levied using a daily multiplier starting from a March 2021 enforcement deadline and dating back three years.

In 2021, Teck also received a $60 million fine — the largest environmental penalty in Canadian history — after it was discovered that deleterious coal mine waste rock leachate was being deposited into the upper Fording River in 2012.

Specifically, environmental regulators determined that Fording River Operations and Greenhills Operations coal mines deposited selenium and calcite into the upper Fording River.

Wildsight, a Kootenay-based non-profit dedicated to environmental conservation and education, hailed the reference to the IJC as the first step to addressing a complex issue.

“For the communities that call the Kootenay/Kootenai watershed home, and the environments within it, this investigation could not have come soon enough,” said Casey Brennan, Conservation Director at Wildsight.

“With selenium concentrations at record-high levels, the time for action and open dialogue is now. We hope that through the IJC’s impartial lens, information can be collected and recommendations swiftly made to protect the watershed, and its current and future inhabitants, from the worst water pollution impacts to come.”

A recent study from the U.S. Geological Survey shows the overall annual amount of selenium flowing down the Elk River and into Lake Koocanusa has more than quadrupled since measurements began in 1985. In response, Teck noted that the rate of increase has slowed and that selenium water concentrations in Lake Koocanusa have been stable since at least 2012.

However, the USGS study also found that when the river flows are high, during the spring runoff, there is a larger amount of selenium moving downriver coinciding with larger river flows, even though specific selenium concentrations may be lower.

US study says B.C. coal mine toxins showing up over the border

With files from the Canadian Press and Wolfgang Depner

Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
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