Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The governments of Canada and the United States have finally agreed to ask an international commission to investigate the coal-mining pollution in the Elk and Kootenai/Kootenay rivers and Lake Koocanusa. But any resolution of the problem is at least two years off.

On Monday, the U.S. and Canadian governments announced that they had reached “an understanding on the next steps” toward cooperation on reducing water pollution, particularly selenium, that results from coal mining in the Elk River Valley just over the Canadian border from Lake Koocanusa. The news was greeted with approval from the transboundary Ktunaxa Nation—the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Ktunaxa First Nations of ʔakisq̓nuk, ʔaq̓am, Yaqan Nuʔkiy, and Yaq̓it ʔa·knuqⱡi’it.

“For too long, the U.S. and Canada have stood by while our waters suffered,” said CSKT Chairman Michael Dolson said in a release. “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.”

North of Montana, coal mines operated by Teck Resources have released wastewater laced with selenium and nitrogen into Canada’s Elk River for decades. In the early 1990s, the selenium concentration at the mouth of the Elk River started exceeding British Columbia water quality guidelines, and now, it’s increased to four times the B.C. guidelines.

The Elk River carries that pollution directly into Lake Koocanusa, which straddles the international border. In 2014, the international Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group started studying the contamination after Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks found that selenium levels increased in seven species of fish in the lake between 2008 and 2013. Studies show that more than 90% of the selenium in Lake Koocanusa comes from the Elk River.

Once the water exits Lake Koocanusa through the Libby Dam, it becomes the Kootenai River, which flows northwest into Idaho and back into British Columbia and Kootenay Lake, which feeds into the Columbia River.

While the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has debated backing off from the protective selenium standards approved in 2020 by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho - collectively called the Transboundary Ktunaxa Nation - submitted a proposal to the governments of Canada and the U.S. in December 2022, asking them to address the pollution problem.

A year ago, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to working with the transboundary Ktunaxa to “reach an agreement in principle by this summer to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenay watershed.” But when the summer passed with no follow-up from the two governments, the Ktunaxa Nation set a November deadline.

“The governments need to show that their deadlines, and their intent to meet them, are meaningful. We cannot accept any more broken promises. We have been asking for action on this issue for more than a decade, and we can’t wait any longer,” said ʔaq̓ anqmi Vice-Chairman Gary Aitken, Jr., in an October release.

In mid-October, Rob Sisson, one of six commissioners on the International Joint Commission, explained to Montana legislators what would happen if the U.S. and Canadian governments write an order, or reference, for the commission to look into selenium pollution crossing the U.S-Canada border.

The two governments and the Tribal Nations sent a reference telling the Joint Commission to establish a formal system by June 30 to develop options for future action and a two-year study board of experts to develop and share information about the pollution problem, according to a joint statement from U.S. Ambassador David L. Cohen and Canadian Ambassador Kirsten Hillmen. Because the pollution affects lakes and rivers in Montana as well as the Kootenai River in Idaho, the board would likely have representatives from the states of Montana and Idaho as well as tribal members and representatives of Canada and specifically British Columbia. The eventual goal would be to reduce the effects of pollution.

The International Joint Commission was created in 1912 to oversee specific lake and river systems along the U.S.-Canadian border under the guidance of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. Sisson said the commission sent a letter more than two years ago to the U.S. president and Canadian prime minister, telling them how dire the selenium situation was becoming.

“Under the (Boundary Waters Treaty), it says neither side can send pollution across the boundary. To the IJC, this is a clear violation of the treaty, and if there’s not a reference on this, then the treaty which has worked really well for 120 years is pretty much useless,” Sisson said in October.

Although four months overdue, Monday’s announcement restored hope for eventual action and preservation of the treaty. It also comes at a critical moment, because Teck Resources is selling the Elk Valley mining complex to Glencore, an international mining corporation with a questionable environmental record.

Glencore would likely be responsible for any cleanup that the Joint Commission recommends. Glencore’s Columbia Falls aluminum smelter in Columbia Falls is already designated as a federal Superfund site.

The Idaho Conservation League is one of four organizations - including Clark Fork Coalition, Montana Environmental Information Center and Idaho Rivers United - that sought to intervene in September on behalf of DEQ in its case against the Montana Board of Environmental Review, Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, Teck Coal Limited and Montana’s attorney general regarding DEQ’s authority to determine Montana’s selenium water quality standard.

The state of Idaho has listed the Kootenai River from the Montana border to Bonner’s Ferry as impaired due to selenium poisoning in fish, particularly mountain whitefish, the endangered Kootenai River white sturgeon and the Lower Kootenai River burbot, which is on the verge of being listed as a threatened species.

Jennifer Ekstrom, Idaho Conservation League’s north Idaho director pointed to a March 5 EPA announcement recommending a Superfund designation for lead and arsenic pollution at a site along the Columbia River in Washington, which is about 10 miles downstream from the Teck Metals smelter in Trail, B.C.

“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,” Ekstrom said. “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.”

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