The Elk River is slowly dying. The Elk is a world-renowned fishing destination in British Columbia. There are five large open-pit coal mines in the drainage, with plans for major expansion at four of these. The mines provide 70 percent of Canada’s total annual coal output and employ more than 4,500 workers. B.C. has been highly reluctant to place any restrictions on mining operations and has opposed international oversight.
Pollution in the region has increased in the last 40 years as the industry moved to large-scale open-pit mines. Selenium leaches from piles of mine waste accumulating on slopes above the Elk River and its tributaries in ever-growing concentrations. Selenium bio-accumulates in fish, causing massive deformities and death. It also accumulates in eggs, causing the young to die. Selenium affects waterfowl that eat the fish as well as aquatic insects.
On its own this would be an immense environmental tragedy, but as the saying goes, “We all live downstream,” and the polluted waters of the Elk River flow down the Kootenai River into U.S. waters. The trans-boundary Kootenai River Basin is a critical habitat for threatened bull trout, west-slope cutthroat trout and endangered White Sturgeon.
It may well be too late to save the Elk River. A research scientist for the University of Montana said, “The Elk River is shot at this point. Its story has been told and it’s now a matter of remediation.” The story, however, doesn’t end there. The pollution problem will continue for hundreds, if not thousands, of years as selenium continues to leach out of the mine spoils and flow downstream. Now is not the time to expand and open new mines. It’s time for an international solution. The International Joint Commission and the Canadian government need to become involved if we are to save our downstream waters.