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State Department Says Committed To Addressing Canada Mining Pollution On Kootenai River Drainage
Posted on Friday, February 02, 2018 (PST)

The U.S. State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency are weighing in on the matter of Canadian mining pollution in transboundary waters such as the Columbia Basin’s Kootenai River drainage, making it an agenda item during upcoming discussions between the two federal governments.


Last month, the State Department responded to requests from Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock, both Democrats, to address the issue of selenium and other pollutants directly related to mining activity in British Columbia’s Elk River Basin, which feeds directly into the Kootenai River north of Lake Koocanusa and Libby Dam.


Similar correspondence was also sent by Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation regarding downstream impacts from Canadian mining activity on that state.


A recent letter from the State Department’s assistant secretary of legislative affairs states that the U.S. “is committed to addressing concerns of potential impacts to communities and livelihoods that share water resources such as the Kootenai River watershed.”


It notes the Department’s Canadian Affairs Director, Cynthia Kierscht led an interagency delegation to a semi-annual meeting last October of the International Joint Commission, a panel made up of Canadian and American representatives that hears disputes and areas of concern regarding waters that cross between the two countries.


“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 letter states. “We expect to share findings from our bilateral review with Global Affairs Canada at the April 2018 IJC meetings.”


The letter goes on to say that an interagency work group, co-chaired by an EPA representative, was formed to coordinate actions and communicate continuing concerns to the Canadian government.


In follow-up correspondence with Climate Change Canada and BC’s Ministry of Environment last month, the EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs requested that the province no longer approve any actions that would result in increased selenium and nitrate loading to Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River “until there is a full understanding of changes to water quality and potential transboundary impacts.”


That letter says the “EPA has long been concerned about the effects of mining-related pollution in the Elk River Valley and its cumulative transboundary impacts to the U.S. resources. In particular, we are concerned about increasing selenium concentrations in the watershed, which can bio-accumulate in aquatic species and birds and impair egg and embryo development.”


The letter refers to an Elk Valley Water Quality Plan that states four active water treatment plants will be installed in the valley to stabilize and reduce selenium and nitrate concentrations in the watershed, but notes that the first treatment plant that was installed “had numerous problems, including a fish kill in 2014, operational delays, and more recently discharging a more (toxic) form of selenium.”


A second plant was scheduled to go into operation this year, but those plans have been delayed. “These setbacks are of concern to the EPA, as the treatment plans are the primary proposed mechanism to reduce selenium and nitrate loading to the Elk River watershed and Lake Koocanusa.”


The letter also noted that the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho have both expressed concerns about transboundary pollution.


“We appreciate Montana’s desire to maintain regular and structured transboundary cooperation on the management of our shared waters,” the State Department letter states. “We equally share your interest in working with Canada to identify practical solutions to these issues that are of great concern to tribes, governments, and stakeholders on both sides of the border.”


Erin Sexton, a senior research scientist with the University of Montana’s Biological Station on Flathead Lake, has been involved with monitoring mining impacts in the Elk River Basin and sharing those findings since 2007. She said the State Department’s recent immersion in the matter is significant, largely because Montana and tribal nations haven’t been successful in making the matter a priority with the British Columbia provincial government.


“To see such a substantive response from the Department of State is fantastic,” she said. “I think what they put in the letter about a commitment to a gap analysis is super critical. I’m really hopeful that the Department of State and the EPA will take a really good look at how these mines are being permitted and how Montana and the downstream states are impacted.”


An upcoming re-negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty is a “very logical link to make” as a potential vehicle for long-term commitments regarding transboundary waters that are impacted by mining pollution.


“The Columbia River Treaty is very much about tradeoffs across the international boundary, and the mining impacts to the Columbia River system are a trade off,” Sexton said. “There currently isn’t any mitigation for the mining impacts on the U.S. part of the watershed.”


So far, selenium and its toxic effects on fish are a major contaminant, along the phosphates, sulphates and cadmium.


“Our agencies are having to pay for the research looking into those impacts … The U.S., state and tribal governments are currently bearing the costs for the impacts from the mining industry and to study the impacts, and BC is getting royalties from the mining industry,” Sexton said, suggesting that maybe BC and the mining industry should have some kind of trust to share in those costs.


Sexton’s first experience in gathering data on Canadian waters was funded around 2007 by a special $3 million appropriation that was largely secured by former Montana Sen. Max Baucus. The Elk River was used as a baseline “mining impacted” river, while conditions were also monitored in the nearby northernmost reaches of the North Fork Flathead, where mining was proposed on the Canadian side of the border in geological conditions very similar to the Elk River Basin.


That research revealed a vast difference in nutrient levels, fish productivity, and aquatic insects. It eventually led to knowledge about striking differences in water chemistry, including the abundant presence of selenium, in the Elk River drainage leading to Lake Koocanusa, the Kootenai River well downstream into Idaho, where a water quality monitoring station has measured increasing selenium loads. Sexton said that may present future long-term impacts not only to bull trout that originate in the Wigwam River, described as premier bull spawning waters in the country, but also to native cutthroat and white sturgeon that populate the Kootenai River Idaho.


“We’re looking at long-term legacy issues from the impacts — we’re talking hundreds of years, and we need to have this discussion,” Sexton said. “And I’m really glad the State Department and the EPA have taken up this issue.”


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