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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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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