State Department Pledges Action on Montana’s Polluted Transboundary Watersheds

Secretary Tillerson says he is initiating a bilateral review process to address upstream contaminants leaching from Canadian coal mines

By Tristan Scott
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, left, and Gov. Steve Bullock. Beacon File Photo

The U.S. Department of State is spearheading a plan to tackle the decade-long problem brewing in the transboundary Kootenai River watershed, where toxic contaminants leaching from upstream Canadian coal mines into Montana’s watersheds continue to poison the prized aquatic ecosystem.

In an unprecedented call to action at the federal level, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, responding to urgent pleas by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, detailed steps the department was taking to ramp up pressure on the Canadian government and conduct a comprehensive review of legacy impacts of transboundary pollution in the Kootenai River system.

Scientists, tribes and conservation organizations who have worked to draw attention to the perilous situation hailed the response as a major step forward in efforts to stem the flow of pollutants and ensure an effective plan is put in place.

“Agencies, tribes and stakeholders in this region have been trying to get the mining issues of the Elk River Valley on the agenda of the State Department for a decade now, and this is one of the most substantive responses I have ever seen,” said Erin Sexton, a research scientist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana who is representing the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “This response contains an actual promise to do something, which I’ve never seen until now.”

Researchers studying Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, which form the watershed straddling the U.S.-Canada boundary, report alarming concentrations of a mining contaminant called selenium, which leaches from piles of waste created by coal mines along B.C.’s Elk River and is accumulating in the shared watershed downstream.

The need for more stringent water quality standards gained urgency last summer as Teck Coal, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates five steelmaking coal mines just across the border from Montana, announced plans to shut down its active water quality treatment facility on a tributary of the Elk River called Line Creek.

The experimental $120 million water treatment facility was designed to stem the flow of selenium, but it was determined earlier this year to be releasing an even more biologically toxic form of the contaminant.

In November, in an unprecedented show of state-and-federal solidarity on the issue, Bullock and Tester, both Montana Democrats, called upon Tillerson to enact a stronger framework to protect the shared resources, and asked for more stringent, bilateral water quality standards to protect one of Montana’s greatest assets.

“We are encouraging the U.S. State Department to address the larger bilateral concerns within the Kootenai River watershed, in order to protect Montana’s water and to ensure it remains clean for future generations,” the letter states.

“It is our belief that from a human health and aquatic life perspective, Lake Koocanusa is the most sensitive point in the Kootenai watershed affected by selenium,” the letter continues. “A strong bilateral water quality standard, developed with British Columbia, is the first step in communicating and protecting Montana’s water quality needs.”

In response, the State Department last week responded in separate letters to both Tester and Bullock.

“The Department of State is committed to addressing concerns of potential impacts to communities and livelihoods that share water resources such as the Kootenai River watershed,” the letter states. “The Department has spearheaded action on this important issue.”

The letter goes on to describe those efforts, including steps by the Department’s Canadian Affairs Director, Cynthia Kierscht, to lead an interagency delegation during the recent meeting of the International Joint Commission in Ottawa, where she raised the issue with Sylvain Fabi, executive director of the Division of the U.S. Transboundary Affairs of Global Affairs Canada, according to the letter.

“Ms. Kierscht highlighted U.S. concerns regarding transboundary mining impacts on the United States and secured a commitment from Global Affairs Canada to engage in a bilateral review of gaps and limitations in current efforts on this issue. The Department will lead this review process with interagency, tribal, and stakeholder input.”

The State Department hopes to share its findings from the review at the April 2018 meeting of the International Joint Commission, the letter states, and has established an interagency working group led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to spearhead discussion among the federal family.

“It’s amazing. This is more specific language than I have ever seen at the federal level,” Sexton said. “We have had letters from state departments acknowledging our concerns but that were very vague. This is a commitment. They have assigned themselves a task and then made that publicly available in black-and-white terms.”

Dave Hadden, executive director of Headwaters Montana, one of the groups that pressed Bullock to demand that regulatory agencies in British Columbia follow international water quality standards before approving new coal mines that could jeopardize downstream waters, called the response nothing short of a small victory.

Specifically, he said the letter’s promise to address gaps, limitations and disparities between the two countries’ monitoring and regulatory standards is a promising step toward smoothing out those differences.

“British Columbia’s program for monitoring is broken, and there is a broad recognition of that now, including recognition by the auditor general,” Hadden said.

In 2016, the British Columbia Auditor General released an audit chastising provincial mine regulators for “a decade of neglect in compliance and enforcement,” highlighting the coal mines above Lake Koocanusa as particularly egregious examples.

“We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the (Ministry of Energy and Mines) and the (Ministry of Environment) were not met,” B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer wrote in the introduction to the report.

That same year, leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes formally requested that the federal government refer the impaired watershed to the International Joint Commission, joining with the Ktunaxa National Council and the Council of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho in making the request.

Under the Boundary Waters Treaty, signed in 1909, Canada and the U.S. agreed that shared waters cannot be polluted on either side of the border, to cause injury on the other side.

Another resource-rich state that shares a border with B.C. also asked Tillerson to raise concerns with the Canadian government regarding the impacts of B.C. mining on waters that flow across the border, only the letter from Alaska’s delegation was signed entirely by Republican lawmakers, including the governor.

Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation also asked Tillerson to determine if the concerns should be brought to a special international commission, which becomes involved when asked to do so by the national governments.

The State Department provided a similar response to the Alaska delegation as it did to Tester and Bullock.

In response to Tillerson’s letter Tester issued the following statement:

“I am encouraged to see the Administration taking action. I will hold their feet to the fire to ensure they follow through, because clean water is our most valuable resource and we must protect it for future generations.”

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