U.S. Groups Join in Call for Federal Analysis on Upstream Canadian Mine

Coalition of 17 organizations join state and federal agencies in calling for review of transboundary mine expansion above Montana’s Kootenai River

By Tristan Scott
A tour of Teck's mines and facilities on Sept. 25, 2019 in Sparwood, British Columbia. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A coalition of conservation groups is mounting pressure on Canadian environmental authorities to conduct a federal review of a proposed mine expansion upstream of Montana’s Kootenai River system, where the inrush of contaminants from existing mines in the Canadian headwaters has been threatening the prized watershed’s aquatic health for more than a decade.

In requesting the federal assessment, the 17 U.S.-based organizations joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the state of Montana, as well as tribes and First Nations on both sides of the border to demand a comprehensive review of the mine’s downstream effects.

Articulating the demand in a July 13 letter to Canada’s Environment Minister, the groups single out the province’s largest mining company, Teck Resources, which has proposed a new coal mine expansion called the Castle Mountain Project upstream of the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa, a transboundary waterway they say has become a veritable settling pond for Canada’s industrial mining waste.

“Despite the company’s persistent inability to contain mining waste, and ongoing failure to develop effective water treatment technologies, B.C.’s provincial regulators are considering Teck’s request for yet another mountaintop-removal coal mine directly north of the border,” according to Dave Hadden, executive director of Headwaters Montana, based in the Flathead Valley. “If approved, it would be the largest coal mine in Canada.”

The groups argue that by disguising the new landscape-scale mine as an “expansion” of existing mines, the company and B.C. regulators are skirting a full federal environmental analysis, and instead are moving to approve the project with an abbreviated provincial assessment.

“We believe the largest coal mine in Canada should be granted the highest level of environmental assessment, especially given the complexity of the international watershed,” Hadden continued. “It appears, however, that Environment Canada has accepted Teck’s argument that this project doesn’t need a full assessment because it’s too small.”

The Castle Mountain Project would be located northwest of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, and would produce an estimated 10 million metric tons of coal per year. It would be part of the existing Fording River Mine complex, which for decades has been strip-mining the mountains of B.C.’s Elk River Valley. The project is one of four new proposed mountaintop removal coalmines in the Elk River Valley, upriver of Montana waterways. Existing mines regularly exceed water quality rules, with selenium contamination recorded at 100 times the provincial guideline.

The coalition of U.S.-based organizations say a full Canadian federal review would help determine the potential impacts to the transboundary region’s water, fish and wildlife, as well as downstream communities. Similar requests have been submitted to the Minister by Canadian environmental organizations, the state of Montana, the state of Idaho, the EPA, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, the Ktunaxa Nation of B.C., and several other downstream stakeholders.

The Minister is expected to decide by Aug. 19 whether the mine proposal warrants a full federal review.

The existing Fording River Mine is currently Teck’s largest, and was approved for expansion just five years ago. The new Castle Mountain expansion, if approved, would extract more coal than has been mined over the entire lifetime of the Fording operation.

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada has concluded the Castle Mountain project is too small to qualify for a federal assessment, even as downstream interests on both sides of the border dispute Teck’s assessment, arguing the project represents an entirely new mining venture, on a mountain that has not been mined in the past. The groups say Canadian law excludes a so-called “expansion” from federal review.

Specifically, Canadian law states that an “expansion” that totals less than 50% of the existing mine’s footprint does not require a full assessment; Teck analysis pegs the Castle Mountain project as a 36% expansion.

Groups calling for the federal review cite long-term water pollution flowing from Teck’s existing coal mines as the major justification for such a review. In the upper Fording River, pollution levels are already exceed thresholds and fish populations have been decimated.

“The Castle mine would be right beside the upper Fording River, which is where we found out last fall that 93 percent of adult trout had disappeared in just the last two years,” Lars Sander-Green of Wildsight, a Canadian environmental group. “The federal government has a constitutional responsibility to protect fish and the rivers they live in, so it’s high time they take a hard look at what’s happening in the Elk Valley.”

Contaminants flowing into the U.S., by way of Lake Koocanusa, have placed numerous fish species at risk, both in the sprawling transboundary reservoir as well as in the downstream Kootenai River. Past B.C. environmental assessments have skirted the documented impacts downstream in Koocanusa or the Kootenai, as they are not required to look beyond provincial boundaries. A federal review, however, would take into account impacts across the international border.

“As much as the province of B.C. would like to think otherwise, the impacts of their projects absolutely extend beyond their borders,” Hadden said. “They have a right to develop their resources, but they do not have a right to treat their neighbors as a settling pond. These are transboundary issues with international implications, and they require a federal response.”

“Minister Wilkinson needs to signal that mining in transboundary watersheds requires serious review,” said Michael Jamison of National Parks Conservation Association. “B.C. currently is analyzing several massive mine projects in watersheds upstream of Montana, Alaska, Idaho and Washington, and the U.S. must have a federal-to-federal seat at the table in the review of these international proposals.”

The groups who signed the letter include: Headwaters Montana, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Idaho Chapter Sierra Club, Montana Chapter Sierra Club, Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Environmental Information Center, Montana Wilderness Association, American Rivers, Idaho Conservation League, Conservation Northwest, Montana Trout Unlimited, Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited, Kootenai Valley Trout Unlimited, Flathead Wildlife, SalmonState, Salmon Beyond Borders.

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