Hannah Northey and James Marshall, E&E News reporters
Published: Tuesday, June 15, 2021
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is expressing concern about mine pollution from Canada. Francis Chung/E&E News
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is calling on the State Department to help stem the flow of pollution from Canadian mines into the northwestern reaches of his home state of Montana.
Tester last week asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a letter to engage with the Canadian government regarding selenium leaching from mining operations along the Elk River in Canada and into Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River in Montana.
The senator warned that the pollution could hamper Montana's way of life and the state's $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy.
"For decades, mining operations in Canada have caused elevated selenium levels in the transboundary watershed," he wrote. "Efforts to curb selenium contamination have been unsuccessful, and selenium levels continue to rise. Meanwhile, mining companies are proposing new mines without a tested plan in place to control selenium and other contaminants."
Tester has joined the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in calling for the International Joint Commission (IJC) to get involved. Guided by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, the commission helps resolve transboundary water disputes between the United States and Canada.
From hardrock minerals like copper and gold to metallurgical coal used to make steel, British Columbia is home to a thriving mining industry. About 70 miles north of Montana's northwest border with Canada, Vancouver, British Columbia-based Teck Resources Ltd. currently operates four surface coal mines.
Those mines in the Canadian Rockies' Elk River Valley extract metallurgical coal by mountaintop removal. That method, which was once common in Appalachia, produces nitrate pollution through blasting and releases selenium into waterways.
Selenium magnifies as it moves up the food chain, said Erin Sexton, a scientist at the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station. Ingesting too much of the element can harm animals' reproductive organs and can cause deformities in fish eggs.
In March, Teck pleaded guilty in Canada and paid a $60 million fine due to selenium discharges in violation of the country's fisheries law.
Pollution coming from its coal operations were blamed for fish kills and damage in Canada, Montana and Idaho, the Associated Press reported.
Teck spokesperson Chris Stannell said the company is unaware of fish deaths associated with selenium in Lake Koocanusa or the Kootenai River.
"We have spent more than $1 billion so far to implement the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan," Stannell said via email. "Between now and 2024 we plan to invest up to a further $655 million in work to protect the watershed."
In response to transboundary mine pollution last year, Montana set a new limit on selenium in Lake Koocanusa at 0.8 microgram per liter. Lake Koocanusa already averages 1.1 micrograms per liter, Sexton said.
"Which basically says we are violating the Boundary Waters Treaty in the Kootenai watershed, because water flowing in from British Columbia is exceeding our water quality standard," she said over the phone.
Sexton spoke with E&E News yesterday morning before meeting up with the three American members of IJC. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho invited commissioners to discuss transboundary pollution.
Environmentalists in Alaska and Washington are also concerned about transboundary mining pollution. Those states are downstream from numerous gold and copper mines along the border in various stages of development.
British Columbia's lax mining regulations are a barrier to fending off transboundary pollution in the region, said Jill Weitz, who directs SalmonState's beyond borders fishery conservation campaign in Alaska.
Unlike its Pacific Northwest neighbors, British Columbia doesn't require mining companies to post full-cost bonds on the front end to ensure they have enough money for expensive environmental obligations once mines close.
The framework can let miners off the hook for long-term environmental remediation and allows companies to more easily pass cleanup costs on to taxpayers, Weitz said.
"From a mining perspective, our jurisdictions are at a competitive disadvantage because it's easy for companies to mine in BC," she said.
British Columbia's provincial government has been reluctant to crack down on the powerful mining sector, Weitz said. Her organization has been working with Congress, where the issue is bipartisan.
The Congressional Wild Salmon Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), hosted a transboundary mining briefing in April.
"I do think there is a willingness to try to make sure ... that the mining that takes place in rivers that go into Alaska waters and Washington waters are done safely," Young said about the Canadian government.
Mitch Friedman, director of Conservation Northwest, said curbing transboundary pollution is a matter of cleaning up the mining industry because copper, lithium and other minerals are key parts of renewable energy supply chains.
"You can't get alternative energy without a mountain of copper," Friedman said.
He advocated for mining policies that reflect the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance. IRMA provides independent certification to verify mines have sound environmental, human rights and social standards.
"We need to figure out how to save the sky without destroying our waters," Friedman said. "We need better mining. We can't be anti-mining. We need to figure this out."
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Hours of net mending, working on engines, tying flies, prepping smoke houses, checking gear, and longer days can only mean one thing…
salmon season is upon us!
While we truly hope this year is better than last, the pre-season forecasts are not looking up.
Our wild salmon stocks here on the Salmon Coast are struggling - and the three rivers that have historically produced 80% of Southeast Alaska’s king salmon - the Taku, Stikine, and Unuk Rivers - will likely be listed as stocks of concern by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game (ADFG). Additionally, federal managers expect the Stikine subsistence sockeye fishery may be cut short due to low forecasts, and the Ketchikan salmon derby has been cancelled due to concerns for low king returns.
The Taku, Stikine, and Unuk need your voices!
On Wednesday, May 19th - show up on behalf of the coastal communities that are at risk of losing everything - and who have not been adequately represented in the fight to defend and sustain our rivers, jobs, and way of life. The State of Alaska has scheduled its first public presentation on this issue during the Dunleavy administration to take place (virtually) with the Province of British Columbia on Wednesday, May 19th at 2:00 PM AKST.
Registration link for the event is here.
If you’re interested in learning more - or would like to discuss some ideas for questions to ask during the presentation - please reach out to Salmon Beyond Borders directly: firstname.lastname@example.org. And while we’re at it, here is a summary of recent events...
Top Three Updates on AK-BC Transboundary Salmon Rivers
Tribes, Commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, business owners, tour operators, and thousands of hard-working Alaskans continue to work together with our congressional delegation, legislators, and municipal leaders toward binding international solutions that will defend and sustain our wild salmon rivers for generations to come.
As always, thank you for your continued engagement and support, we’re all in this together.
The Salmon Beyond Borders team
Jill, Bre, Heather, and Mary Catharine
Last week the State of Alaska and the Province of British Columbia released their final report on the B.C.-Alaska Transboundary Rivers Monitoring Program, after just two years of sampling, claiming “extraordinary partnership” across the border and conclusion of the program.
Alaska and B.C.’s characterization of their monitoring efforts dramatically underestimates the current situation. They fail to address the future risks associated with large-scale industrial mining in the B.C. headwaters of these crucial shared salmon rivers, yet they are trying to control the conversation to suggest “everything is fine” while undermining the concerns of Tribes, commercial fishermen, and thousands of Alaskans.
Tell the Biden Administration
We Need Tribal and Federal Leadership
to Protect Our International Salmon Rivers
Now, more than ever, we need an international framework with Tribal and Federal leadership and community engagement to determine the future of these iconic watersheds -- just as thousands of Alaskans, Tribes, commercial fishermen, municipalities, and the Alaska congressional delegation have requested for years.
SOUTHEAST ALASKANS RESPOND TO RELEASE OF AK - BC REPORT, HIGHLIGHT NEED FOR TRIBAL AND FEDERAL LEADERSHIP TO PROTECT INTERNATIONAL SALMON RIVERS
To read the joint response from Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, United Fishermen of Alaska, Salmon Habitat Information Program, and Salmon Beyond Borders, click here.
As always, thanks so much for taking the time to read this update and staying engaged – we’re all in this together.
Gunalchéesh / Háw’aa / Thank you,
The Salmon Beyond Borders Team
Despite last year’s many challenges and an unprecedented start to 2021, our collective work to address the threats posed by British Columbia mines along international transboundary rivers hit several significant milestones in recent months. Just below, we’ve compiled the highlights from last fall through the start of this new year and -- if you’re up for it -- we hope you’ll read along for a deeper dive into the efforts to defend and sustain the world-class transboundary rivers of The Salmon Coast and beyond.
“If the salmon does not survive, there is little hope for the survival of the planet.”
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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