Transboundary commission members seek data on Canada mine pollution into Kootenai River Drainage

By Columbia Basin

Bulletin: Weekly Fish and Wildlife News


A U.S.-Canadian panel charged with resolving disputes related to the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 has run into a rare conflict — the U.S. members of the International Joint Commission say their Canadian counterparts have refused to publish their own country’s data showing pollution impacts from British Columbia mines to waters flowing into Montana.

The six-member IJC, made up of three commissioners from each country, brokers and resolve differences over the treaty, usually through consensus and without controversy.

But the U.S. commissioners recently went public with a June 20 letter of complaint to the U.S. State Department, which raised the transboundary pollution issue with the Canadian government earlier this year. That was prompted by bi-partisan pressure from several tribes and top political leaders in Montana as well as Alaska, where there is similar concern about downstream pollution impacts from Canadian mining operations.

So far, the IJC’s transboundary pollution conflict and the Boundary Waters Treaty are considered by the State Department as a matter separate from the ongoing re-negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty.

The U.S. commissioners contend their counterparts are blocking inclusion of data in a formal joint report the two sides requested in 2012. Much of that data has been collected by Teck Resources, the company that operates five mountain-top removal coal mines in the Elk River Valley.

“The ongoing leaching of mining contaminants including selenium into an international river basin is a liability to Canada and the U.S. The U.S. Commissioners firmly agree with the 2016 BC Auditor General’s assessment that B.C.’s negligence to address the mining impacts puts Canada at risk of violating Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909,” states the letter, which was signed by commissioners Lana Pollack and Rich Moy.

Article IV of the treaty states that “boundary waters and waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted to the injury of health or property of the other.”

A 2016 BC Auditor General’s report, often described as “scathing,” named Teck’s Elk Valley mines as specific examples of the BC government’s failure to enforce water quality standards.

The U.S. commissioners say the unusual impasse in the IJC comes down to a lack of consensus on a selenium report that was requested by both sides in 2012. The joint report was to be developed by the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board, but it has been stalled over the last six years.

“Canadian commissioners have not been willing to submit a report that addresses selenium pollution in transboundary waters of the Kootenai River drainage,” the letter states. “Whereas, U.S. commissioners have been unwilling to endorse a report that lacks accurate and available information relevant to health impacts in the transboundary Elk-Koocanusa watersheds from the Teck coal mines.”

“In addition to documented short-term impacts, it is well understood that high concentrations of selenium will have long lasting impacts on water quality, fish, other aquatic species, wildlife and human in southeast BC and northwestern Montana communities,” the letter states. “These impacts could become permanent.”

The letter refers to significant known impacts of selenium to fish, including threatened bull trout in Montana’s Kootenai River Basin, where millions in Bonneville Power Administration fish and wildlife mitigation funds have been invested in fisheries habitat restoration and conservation. Selenium has been shown to cause defects in fish, such as missing gill plates, curvature of the spine, and ultimately diminished reproductive ability.

The commissioners’ letter points out that “state of Montana data from 2008 and 2013 show that selenium concentrations have increased between 21-70 percent in a cross section of fish species found in Lake Koocanusa — a transboundary reservoir.”

In May of 2018, Teck notified the EPA, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and BC Ministries that selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa reached levels that exceed Canadian water quality standards as well as the EPA standard for protection of aquatic life.

“High selenium concentrations are resulting in deformities and reproductive failure in trout and increasing fish mortality of up to 50 percent in some portions of the Elk and Fording watersheds. It is also established that mine pollutants are poisoning and killing off the more sensitive species of macro-invertebrates downstream of the mines,” the U.S. commissioners’ letter states.

Despite those findings, a Teck spokesman recently told Canadian media that extensive monitoring has found that selenium and other pollutants are not affecting fish populations.

The U.S. commissioners letter also refers to human impacts.

“Recently, one of three municipal water supply wells in Sparwood (where many of the mine workers live) was contaminated by selenium and had to be shut down. A number of domestic waters supply wells have also registered high selenium levels,” the letter states.

The Teck spokesman said the company will invest between $850 million and $900 million in developing water treatment facilities over the next five years.

But watchdog conservation organizations, tribes, Montana officials, and the U.S. commissioners are skeptical about the veracity and effectiveness of the company’s approach to the problem.

“Despite Teck’s and BC’s commitment to reduce selenium concentrations in 2014 … there have been serious setbacks over the past three years. There have been fish kills in Line Creek (2014) and numerous delays in the plan to construct the active wastewater treatment plants in the affected watersheds,” the commissioners letter states.

Teck has projected that selenium levels would continue to rise without proper treatment to remove selenium.

“According to data collected and published by Teck, selenium concentrations have progressively increased and are now 70 times higher in the Elk and Fording Rivers as compared to the Flathead (headwaters in B.C, where there isn’t similar mining activity) and are projected to continually rise as mines expand,” the letter states.

The U.S. commissioners point out that data provided by Teck make it clear the company is “relying entirely on active wastewater treatment to address what is an otherwise increasing trend in selenium leaching into the Elk and Fording rivers.”

“However, it is now reasonably clear that Teck will have difficulty meeting its commitments in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan,” the U.S. commissioners state. “In the fall of 2017 Teck had to shut down its only active wastewater treatment plant on Line Creek because the plant was releasing a much more toxic and bio-available form of selenium resulting in increased harm to water quality and fish. Selenium will continue to pollute the Elk and Kootenai transboundary waters for hundreds of years if no viable solution is found. There is a question as to whether the technology even exists to remove selenium from large volumes of flowing water and there is no viable solution to remove selenium from groundwater.”