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U.S., Canada agree to work together to reduce cross-border pollution from B.C. coal mines | CBC News

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The United States and Canada have agreed to launch a joint probe into a long-running cross-border dispute involving pollution from coal mines in British Columbia flowing into American waters.

“Our two countries are committed to a collaborative, science, and Indigenous knowledge based, action-oriented path forward,” said a joint statement from U.S. ambassador to Canada David Cohen and his Canadian counterpart Kirsten Hillman. 

The agreement, announced Monday, involves both national governments, along with B.C., the states of Montana and Idaho, and six Indigenous communities on both sides of the border.

They will work under the auspices of the International Joint Commission, a treaty-based group that mediates water disputes. 

WATCH | Tracking the impact of toxic mining funoff from B.C.’s Elk Valley: 

Tracing the impact of toxic mining runoff from B.C.’s Elk Valley on U.S. border communities

Coal mines operated by Teck Resources are releasing selenium into the waterways in B.C.’s Elk valley. Selenium is a natural mineral but in high concentrations it can be harmful to aquatic life. As the selenium continues on its way to the U.S. border, tensions between Ottawa and Washington are rising. Radio-Canada’s Camille Vernet followed the path of selenium from B.C. to the U.S. to meet the communities that live around the waterways.

The agreement creates a governance body and a research panel tasked with finding ways to reduce contamination from coal mines in B.C.’s Elk Valley, in the East Kootenay region, flowing into Lake Koocanusa, a reservoir straddling the border and into U.S. rivers.

That governance body is to be running by the end of June, with the final research report due two years after that. 

‘Long time coming’

The issue has festered for a decade, said Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation, which represents the six First Nations in Canada and the U.S. who live along those waters.

“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “This is a good start. It’s just the beginning of what’s going to be a long, aggressive process.”

A woman smiling at the camera.
Ktunaxa Nation chair Kathryn Teneese says the agreement to tackle waste in Elk Valley waterways and further downstream has been ‘a long time coming.’ (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

Decades of open-pit mining in southeastern B.C. have exposed selenium, an element toxic to fish that is associated with coal deposits. That selenium has been flowing downstream. 

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey confirms contamination is coming from those mines. It adds that the efforts by mine owner Teck Resources to slow those releases aren’t making much difference to the amount flowing south.

In 1985, the report estimated just under two tonnes of selenium flowed down the Elk River into Lake Koocanusa. By last year, that had grown to nearly 11 tonnes.


 

Teck has installed $1.4-billion worth of water treatment at the mine and is structuring new activity to capture at least 95 per cent of selenium from current operations. Montana government data shows selenium water concentrations in Lake Koocanusa have been stable since at least 2012.

But the report says the selenium continues to be washed downstream, especially during high flow periods. 

Findings to be regularly released

American officials, including senators, the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, have been pressing for years for a joint U.S.-Canada investigation into the situation. U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had promised action by last summer.

The logjam may have been broken last August when B.C. finally agreed to a role for the International Joint Commission. 

The province released a joint statement from four ministers Monday, including Environment Minister George Heyman, saying it supports the investigation.

“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,” the statement says. 

“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.”

A man holds a small grey fish with a ridged back and a long snout.
A young sturgeon at the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho hatchery in Bonners Ferry. U.S. biologists say toxic material from B.C. mines are harming fish in their rivers. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

The investigation will be required to regularly release its findings and conclusions.

“Transparency will help result in a better outcome for all the people, species and communities that depend upon this watershed,” said Stephenne Harding, senior director for lands at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

‘There won’t be any simple solutions’

The announcement was also welcomed by environmentalists, who have long sought some kind of action from the two governments.

“Both governments have an opportunity to restore the faith of all citizens by helping this investigation to progress as smoothly as possible,” said a statement from Casey Brennan, conservation director of the group Wildsight.

“For a crisis as complex as the one we face in the Elk Valley, there won’t be any simple solutions.”

Teck, in the process of selling its coal assets to Swiss multinational Glencore, is not represented on the governance board. It will be able to submit information to the panel, according to senior U.S. administration officials. 

Teck spokesperson Chris Stannell said the company is seeking to learn more about the agreement.

“Teck is committed to continuing to work co-operatively with Indigenous peoples, communities and governments to protect aquatic health and share data,” he said in an email. “We have made significant progress implementing the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan.”

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