Guest Column

B.C. Putting Our Waters at Risk

What happens in the Elk River Valley flows down to Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River

As far as neighbors go, Montana has a lot in common with British Columbia. They share our appreciation for the good things in life — fresh air, clean water, and beautiful scenery. And we share cross-boundary populations of fish and wildlife.

But B.C. isn’t Las Vegas: what happens in B.C. doesn’t necessarily stay there. In this case, what happens in the Elk River Valley flows down to Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, some of Montana’s prime fishing waters.

Montana anglers and fish advocates are concerned for the Kootenai’s rainbow and bull trout, as well as its kokanee, sturgeon and burbot. In addition to caring for native and wild species, we understand that these fish are indicators of the health of the entire watershed. And we’re seeing worrisome indications.

Teck Resources, a global mining corporation based in Vancouver, has proven unable to prevent toxic waste from its five mines near Fernie from flowing downstream into Lake Koocanusa. Heavy metal pollution is causing deformities in downstream fish and insects and maybe even in birds. Tests on Lake Koocanusa fish show unhealthy levels of toxins in their flesh.

There’s no disputing the problem. Scientists, government officials and tribes on both sides of the border are seeing the same thing. And Teck Resources, to their credit, is not attempting to avoid responsibility, promising that a new plan – to supplant the current, grossly inadequate Elk Valley Water Quality Plan – is in the works to halt the flow of pollution. Given the value of the downstream fishery and water quality, it’s time to ask a few hard questions. Why are mining operations allowed to continue with no effective plan in place to curtail pollution? And why are a slate of new coal mines being approved for the Elk River Valley?

The plans and the promises aren’t working, plain and simple. We need to put on the brakes until we can sort this out. It is time for a moratorium on new mines in international waters until downstream concerns can be studied, corrected or mitigated.

The type of pollution we’re talking about – particularly selenium, a byproduct of the mining process – does not break down and it accumulates in the bodies of fish and other wildlife. A treatment facility designed to remove the pollution actually compounds the problem, turning the selenium into an even more dangerous form.

We all need jobs, whether you live north or south of the border. But B.C. is building their economy by putting ours, and the purity of our shared waters, at risk.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, along with the Ktunaxa National Council and the Council of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, have voiced their concerns, calling on the federal government to refer the Elk River watershed to the International Joint Commission. Their appeal invokes the Boundary Waters Treaty, signed by Canada and the United States in 1909, in which the two nations agreed that waters cannot be polluted on one side of the border if they damage waters on the other side of the border.

Montana must stand up for itself and its future. Gov. Steve Bullock and Montana’s congressional delegation should join us in demanding that British Columbia clean up its mess and safeguard international waters. Lake Koocanusa is not the settling pond for B.C. mining pollution.

The problem is getting worse by the day. Doing nothing is not an option. Water is life itself, critical to our economic well-being and our health. Flowing water knows no boundaries. Good neighbors respect one another’s boundaries. Here in Montana we strive to be good international neighbors, and expect no less from our friends to the North.

David Brooks is the executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited.