U.S. and Canadian Delegates Enter Discussions on Transboundary Pollution

Montana’s endangered Kootenai River listed as top item at this week’s bilateral meeting

By Tristan Scott

The ongoing flow of mining contaminants from British Columbia into a prized Montana watershed was a top discussion item during a bilateral meeting April 26 in Washington, D.C., where delegates from both countries convened to discuss the most urgent diplomatic issues facing their nations.

Inclusion of the endangered Kootenai River watershed in the multi-national discussion is another in a recent series of significant steps toward addressing a decades-long problem brewing in the transboundary river system, where toxic contaminants leaching from upstream Canadian coal mines in the Elk River Valley of British Columbia continue to threaten Montana’s aquatic ecosystems.

Stakeholders and scientific researchers who for years have ranked the Kootenai among the highest priorities of the western conservation movement hailed the prioritization of the beleaguered watershed in the discussions as a triumphant moment.

“It’s a really big step forward to see this issue held high enough for it to be part of these discussions that only take place twice a year,” Erin Sexton, senior scientist with the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, who attended the meetings, said. “It’s a big deal to get on this agenda. As long as I have been working on the Kootenai, we have tried very hard to get on the bilateral agenda, and this is the first time the Department of State has taken it up. At the same time I know that it’s going to take a lot of work to make sure there is good follow-up.”

Sexton helped add urgency to the issue in 2013, uncovering evidence that high concentrations of the pollutants — the metal-based element selenium, in particular — present a “significant threat to the ecological integrity of these streams and rivers,” and pressed both U.S. and Canada regulatory bodies to act immediately.

Selenium from five metallurgical coal mines owned and operated by Teck Resources has been leaching into British Columbia’s Elk River and flowing southeast into Montana’s Kootenai River watershed for decades. Contamination levels measured in U.S. waters exceeds maximum concentration limits outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Selenium is released from waste rock piled at Teck’s large-scale open-pit coal mines, where rainfall and snowmelt draw it into the Elk and Fording Rivers, leading into Montana’s Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa, the sprawling reservoir that spans both countries. Selenium can be harmful to biological organisms at even small amounts and causes deformities in fish and birds.

While Sexton’s scientific research has helped bring the issue to the fore, she haled Montana’s U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and state Gov. Steve Bullock for their work addressing the problem.

Last November, Tester, along with Bullock, pressed former U.S. State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson to uphold the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, which obligates both countries to avoid polluting shared waters that would cause harm in either country.  In his response in January, Tillerson promised to initiate a process with his Canadian counterparts to address pollution from British Columbia coal mines and their impacts to Montana.

Elevated to the upper tiers of the federal agenda in large part due to efforts by Tester, the recent discussions involved delegates from the U.S. State Department and Global Affairs Canada and covered gaps and limitations in regulatory standards in both nations.

Currently, regulatory agencies in the U.S. and B.C., as well as Montana, employ different standards for monitoring a pollutant called selenium, a naturally occurring element in sedimentary rocks and coal that can be toxic to fish at elevated levels.

Hadden said addressing those gaps and limitation was critical. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environment Canada, the British Columbia Ministry of Environment, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality are working on a memorandum of understanding to jointly study Lake Koocanusa, which straddles the international boundary, and will make recommendations for site-specific selenium water quality criteria.

Earlier this month, the town of Sparwood, British Columbia shut down one of its drinking water wells due to detections of high levels of selenium.

The presence of Montana stakeholders at the national talks was key, Hadden said,

“They all know this is a problem, and they know we are not going to go away,” Hadden said.