UM Researchers Urge Governments to Address Transboundary Mining Pollution

Authored by Flathead Lake Bio Station researcher Erin Sexton, new paper in ‘Science’ highlights impacts of Canadian mines

By Tristan Scott
Piping runs across the surface of Teck’s saturated rock fill at Teck’s Elkview open pit coal mine near Sparwood, British Columbia on Sept. 25, 2019. The saturated rock fill is designed to remove selenium and nitrate from water before it flows away from the mine into the Elk River. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Led by a local University of Montana researcher, an international group of science and policy experts published a joint commentary in the acclaimed journal “Science” urging U.S. and Canadian leadership to address damages and risks caused by Canadian mine pollution flowing downstream into U.S. border states like Montana.

The joint publication highlights the threat and impacts of Canadian mines on shared rivers, fisheries and communities, and calls on the two governments to “align large-scale mine assessments with defensible science.”

“Our paper highlights key shortcomings with mine evaluation and permitting processes in transboundary rivers,” Erin Sexton, a researcher at UM’s Flathead Lake Biological Station and the paper’s lead author, said. “We concluded that Canada, the United States and Indigenous governments must collaboratively engage on joint environmental assessment of proposed, existing and legacy mines in our shared rivers.”

According to the researchers, some of the most culturally and ecologically significant rivers flowing from Canada into the United States are impaired or threatened by a modern-day mining boom, where mines in British Columbia threaten downstream regions in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Alaska.

The letter raises significant concerns about deficiencies in Canada’s environmental assessment and regulation of large-scale industrial mines in transboundary watersheds. Those concerns include the underestimated risk of mine failures and contamination, the reliance on untested mitigation technologies and the lack of independent science in mining assessment and permitting procedures.

“We hope this commentary elevates the discussion of mining in transboundary rivers and improves the science of evaluating their impacts,” said Chris Sergeant, a co-author and fellow FLBS researcher.

Recent discussions have centered on troubling new information detailed in a letter authored by regional administrators for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who expressed heightened concerns that environmental regulators in British Columbia continue to authorize mining projects and expansions despite mounting evidence that environmental standards are being exceeded.

In that letter, the regional administrators pressed Canadian environmental officials to address water quality studies indicating that the Kootenai River downstream of Libby Dam is being affected by pollutants from coal mines in British Columbia’s Elk River Valley, and to disclose additional information on its plans to treat the contamination while permitting mining expansions.

Last year, a bipartisan coalition of senators from all four states bordering the coal-rich province of British Columbia — including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana — pressed top Canadian officials to adopt more stringent water-quality standards.

In their newly published paper, the UM researchers conclude that the persistent problem of mine contamination flowing across the international boundary violates the Canada-U.S. Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which states that “waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health and property of the other.”

The transboundary Kootenai River in northwest Montana is emblematic of this problem, the researchers wrote, because contamination is steadily increasing as active mines in British Columbia continue to deliver mine pollution into Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River in Montana and Idaho. Contaminants in U.S. fish now exceed thresholds for protection due to upstream Canadian mining.

“Water flows downhill, and so can pollution. Honoring the Boundary Waters Treaty would serve to improve the health of our shared rivers,” co-author Jonathan Moore of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia said.

Concerns have spiked in both countries in recent years and attention has intensified on the Elk Valley drainage in southeastern British Columbia and on Teck, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates four world-class steelmaking coal mines across the border from Montana.

The heavy scrutiny is centered on increasing amounts of contamination from coal waste byproducts leaching into the Elk River and its many tributaries, which drain into two bodies of water shared by B.C. and Montana: Koocanusa and the Kootenai River.

Samples of fish species and water quality taken from Lake Koocanusa and other monitoring sites in the Elk basin have revealed heightened levels of selenium, cadmium, nitrate and sulphate from decades of coal mining activity.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element that can become highly toxic when present in elevated concentrations. It’s known to cause deformities in fish eggs, incidents of which have been documented in the Elk and Kootenai watersheds.

Recent studies, including a report by Sexton and other researchers at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, along with data samples taken locally, have prompted worries about long-term impacts to the entire watershed and its resident wildlife.

“There is a lot at risk with these big mines in our transboundary rivers,” Sexton said. “Our countries need to act now on joint science-based review of the mines for the long-term stewardship of our shared waters and communities.”

Other FLBS-affiliated authors on the commentary are Chris Frissell, Ric Hauer, Rachel Malison and Diane Whited. The complete letter can be found on the Science journal’s website at https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6489/376.2.