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U.S., Canada take steps to address mining pollution in Kootenai Watershed

by EMILY BONSANT
Staff Writer | March 14, 2024 1:00 AM

On Monday, the Ktunaxa Nation, U.S. and Canada took the first step to address mining pollution in the Elk-Kootenai Watershed, by submitting the issues to the International Joint Commission.

The IJC was created as an independent body to resolve transboundary water quality disputes. It has not been activated for nearly 40 years on British Columbia’s shared watersheds.

This is after nearly a year since 10 First Nations and Tribes, including the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho called on Canadian officials to address the impact of industrial mining on waterways in historic tribal lands and condemned the governments of Canada and British Columbia for “allowing the mining industry to lay waste to Indigenous territory.” 

For over the past 30 years, the Kootenai Tribe has worked to bring back the endangered white sturgeon and burbot to the Kootenai River. Data shows that the fish are being exposed to high levels of selenium, which attacks the fish’s livers and can cause genetic disorders in fish populations. While harmful to fish, selenium is not dangerous to humans.

The selenium is coming from runoff from the Teck Coal mines in the Elk River Valley in British Columbia. 

This issue is not new. In April 2013, the Kootenai River was named one of the nation’s 10 Most Endangered Rivers, by the American Rivers conservation organization primarily because of pollution from coal mining in southeastern British Columbia. Ktunaxa leadership has been urging Canada and the U.S. to address water pollution in Ktunaxa homelands for over a decade.

“Five mountaintop removal coal mines owned by mining company Teck Resources near Fernie, B.C. have polluted the Kootenai River downstream in Idaho with selenium for decades,” Abby Urbanek, Communications & Marketing Manager at the Idaho Conservation League announced in a press release Monday. “Those pollution levels have increased significantly in recent years. Selenium is toxic in high concentrations, causing harm to fish, water quality, and people alike. This referral is a critical first step in protecting our fish and water quality in Idaho’s Kootenai River, and the communities that depend on them.”

The ICL said mines in British Columbia pollute waters that flow into Alaska, Washington, Montana and Idaho. 

“Canada and the province have resisted efforts to convene delegates from Tribes, First Nations, the United States, and Canada to address the pollution created by these mines,” Urbanek said.  

The KTOI and other conversation groups have called for Idaho’s Congressional delegation to address the issue with the Canadian government.

Ktunaxa Nation officials said the U.S. and Canada are taking the first of many steps to begin to restore the watershed and to honor their commitments and obligations to the Ktunaxa Nation, which includes the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Ktunaxa Nation Council.

Leadership of the transboundary Ktunaxa Nation — the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Ktunaxa First Nations — in partnership with the United States and Canada, have finally agreed to ask the International Joint Commission to study and make recommendations to address the mining pollution in the Elk and Kootenai/y rivers through a joint reference. 

The International Joint Commission was created by Canada and the US, as the two nations recognized that “each country is affected by the other's actions in lake and river systems along the border.” In cooperation, the two countries manage and protect these transboundary waters to benefit today’s citizens and future generations. 

The IJC is guided by the Boundary Waters Treaty, signed by Canada and the United States in 1909. 

“The treaty provides general principles, rather than detailed prescriptions, for preventing and resolving disputes over waters shared between the two countries and for settling other transboundary issues. The specific application of these principles is decided on a case-by-case basis,” IJC.org said. 

The commission has two main responsibilities: approving projects that affect water levels and flows across the boundary and investigating transboundary issues and recommending solutions. Additionally, the commission recommendations and decisions take into account the needs of a wide range of water uses, “including drinking water, commercial shipping, hydroelectric power generation, agriculture, ecosystem health, industry, fishing, recreational boating and shoreline property.”

The Ktunaxa Nation asks the IJC to convene a Governance Body that will develop an action plan to reduce and mitigate the impacts of mining pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watershed. This body will comprise of impacted governments with jurisdiction and legal obligations in the watershed. Additionally, the Nation asks that the IJC Study Board bring experts and knowledge holders together to share knowledge and data in a coordinated, transparent process. 

The Nation expects this work will achieve a common understanding of pollution within the watershed and the impacts it is having on people and species, which will in turn support recommendations to the Governance Body and the public.

“This is an important first step in addressing the serious pollution problem in the Kootenai Watershed, and I am glad to see that the U.S. and Canada are finally taking their commitments to Indigenous peoples, the environment, and the international Boundary Waters Treaty seriously,” said Gary Aitken Jr., Vice Chairman of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.

“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,” he said. “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.”

In March 2023, Prime Minister Trudeau and President Biden committed to “reach an agreement in principle by [summer 2023] to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watershed in partnership with Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples, in order to protect the people and species that depend on this vital river system.”

The summer deadline passed with no action from the federal governments, therefore prompting Ktunaxa leaders to call upon both federal governments to meet in Ktunaxa Territory in November 2023 to work through the impasse and agree on a path forward.

At that meeting, the governments collectively committed to find a solution — through a reference to the IJC — by the end of the year. After nearly three months of intense negotiations, the governments reached agreement, and almost exactly a year after the Prime Minister and President’s statement, the reference has finally been issued to the IJC.

“For too long, the U.S. and Canada have stood by while our waters suffered,” said Michael Dolson, chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “We are encouraged by the federal government’s 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.”

“It is good to see that the U.S. and Canada — in partnership with the Ktunaxa Nation — have started collaborating effectively on this issue and are working toward meeting their commitment to reduce and mitigate the mining pollution in the Kootenai/y watershed,” Kathryn Teneese, Chair of Ktunaxa Nation Council. 

“However, just as this agreement could not have been reached without the deep involvement of the Ktunaxa Nation, future progress will require meaningful inclusion of Ktunaxa knowledge and stewardship,” she said. “We are setting the foundation for an IJC, and we welcome the IJC Commissioners’ involvement in this issue. We hope this is the beginning of a collaborative, transparent, and effective process that will restore the waterways in the heart of Ktunaxa that are vital to the Ktunaxa (people).”

“The Idaho Conservation will continue working to ensure our state is a strong advocate for our water quality and all the life that depends on it,” Urbanek said. 

“We are very pleased that the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and the entire Ktunaxa Nation finally have their rightful seat at the table after many years of calling out the injustice of pollution impacting their waters and fisheries,” said Brad Smith, Idaho Conservation League’s conservation director. “Teck must be held accountable for the harm that their operations are causing to the river, the fish, and communities that depend on them.”

The timing of the IJC announcement comes at a critical moment, as Teck's mining complex in the Elk Valley, B.C. is slated for sale to Glencore, an international mining corporation with an alarming track record. Glencore has previously faced criticism over human rights issues and other problems, including bribery and market manipulation charges for which the company pleaded guilty and was penalized. Furthermore, Glencore’s Columbia Falls aluminum smelter near the gateway to Glacier National Park in Montana was designated a Superfund site, highlighting the corporation’s irresponsible environmental practices in a nearby community. Considering the uncertainty about which corporation will be responsible for the ongoing cleanup of the downriver pollution from the Elk Valley coal mines, the referral to the IJC is welcome news to ICL and others who care about clean water.

“It’s great to finally have a commitment from both the U.S. and Canada to work transparently to address the impacts of the coal mine pollution before it's too late,” said Jennifer Ekstrom, Idaho Conservation League’s North Idaho director. “Just this week, the EPA announced a Superfund recommendation for the Columbia River downstream from the Teck Cominco smelter in Trail, B.C. — further showing that Teck cannot be trusted to protect downstream communities without strong oversight. Today’s IJC announcement for the Elk/Kootenai gives us a glimmer of hope that such an outcome can be avoided here, and that U.S. taxpayers won’t have to shoulder the burden of the cleanup as they are expected to do in the Columbia River situation.”

“There is still much work to be done before the pollution is cleaned up, but we finally have an international venue where solutions can be crafted,” Smith said.

In a joint statement, Kirsten Hillman, Ambassador of Canada to the U.S. and David L. Cohen, Ambassador of the U.S. to Canada announced the partnership between the governments, Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples and have asked the International Joint Commission, through a joint reference, to assist federal and Indigenous governments, British Columbia, Idaho, and Montana, to establish a formal governance structure by June 30, 2024, allowing for co-development of options for future action.

“Considering the particular complexity of pollution concerns in this watershed, the United States and Canada also have asked the IJC to establish a two-year Study Board to convene experts and knowledge holders to conduct transparent and coordinated transboundary data and knowledge sharing,” they wrote.