The transboundary Kootenai River has been named one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the U.S., and its upstream tributary, the Elk River, has been listed as one of the most threatened watersheds in British Columbia due to coal mining operations.
American Rivers, a conservation organization based in Washington D.C., released its annual report, titled “America’s Most Endangered Rivers,” on April 17. The list features the Kootenai, “one of our country’s last wild rivers” that is threatened by open-pit coal mining operations near the Elk.
British Columbia’s Outdoor Recreation Council recently released its own list of endangered rivers, but reduced the focus from 10 to three. The shortlist includes the revered Elk River in southeastern British Columbia, which flows into the Kootenai just north of the U.S.-Canadian border.
“We recognize there are other threatened rivers out there,” ORC spokesman Mark Angelo told The Globe and Mail. “But these are the most imminently threatened. They need action now.”
Researchers have reported cutthroat trout eggs from the Elk that were hatched in a lab produced deformed fish due to toxic pollution in the water. A recent report co-authored by University of Montana scientists warned of high levels of selenium in the watershed, as well as abnormal nitrate and phosphate levels. Selenium arises during the mining process and can leach into surrounding soils and groundwater. It can also be carried by rain or melting snow into the watershed.
Teck Resources, Ltd., which owns the coal mines in the Elk River Valley, is seeking to expand four of its five mines. In its report, ORC commended the company for recognizing the severity of the situation but said the current trend could not go on and greater cleanup efforts were needed.
American Rivers and its partners are calling on the U.S. State Department and the International Joint Commission to halt the proposed expansion until an independent study is completed to determine the cumulative impacts of the mines on water quality, fish and wildlife.
The Kootenai River is the second largest tributary of the Columbia River by volume, spreading across Montana, Idaho and British Columbia.
“Our America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers that face a critical decision point in the next year,” Scott Bosse, American Rivers’ Northern Rockies director in Bozeman, said in a statement.
“The Kootenai is one of the most spectacular rivers in this part of the country, but it faces an uncertain future due to open-pit coal mining across the border in British Columbia. We hope this listing inspires citizens and elected leaders on both sides of the border to take swift and decisive action.”
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