By Bob Weber
June 15, 2022 - The United States government, including President Joe Biden's White House, has joined calls for Canada to participate in a probe of cross-border pollution coming from coal mines in southern British Columbia.
In a statement released last week, the U.S. State Department said Biden supports a joint investigation of selenium coming from Teck Resources' Elk Valley coal mines, which flows into rivers and lakes south of the border.
"The (State) Department reaffirmed the administration's support for a joint reference to the International Joint Commission under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 for the Kootenai Basin regarding the transboundary impacts of mining," said the statement issued Wednesday.
Global Affairs Canada did not immediately respond to a request for a response. On June 2, spokesperson Adrien Blanchard said in an email that Canada was "considering a variety of options."
The U.S. has been concerned about the Teck mines for years. The states of Montana and Idaho, eight American senators, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey and six First Nations from both sides of the border have all said selenium released by the mines threatens fish in their downstream waters.
Several of those groups have requested a reference from the International Joint Commission, which tries to mediate transboundary water disputes. References, an examination of the problem followed by recommendations, have almost always been conducted by both countries together.
The U.S. embassy in Ottawa said the State Department has been "in discussions" with Canada over the issue since September. The U.S. ambassador has brought it up with B.C. Premier John Horgan, as has the U.S. consulate in Vancouver.
"There is an acute and long-standing need to reduce transboundary pollution from mining in the Kootenai Basin," said a spokesperson. "We want to work with our Canadian colleagues to promptly submit a joint reference to the (commission)."
Canada and the U.S., through the commission, have worked jointly on problems in the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain in Quebec and the Souris River basin in Manitoba.
The commission has said it's willing to look at the matter and has asked Canada to participate. Now, the State Department has echoed that request.
In its statement, it said Canada's participation in an Elk Valley reference would lead to "impartial recommendations and transparent communication, build trust, and forge a common understanding of this issue among local, Indigenous, state, provincial and federal governments as well as stakeholders and the public in both countries."
The statement emphasized First Nation concerns, underscoring "the Biden-Harris Administration's commitment to strengthening Nation-to-Nation relationships."
"Support for a joint IJC reference reflects the Biden-Harris Administration's commitment to protect public health; conserve our lands, waters, and biodiversity; and deliver environmental justice to communities overburdened by pollution."
The government statement was preceded by a statement from the six Ktunaxa First Nations in the area, which have been asking Canada to join the reference since December.
"We're demanding meaningful dialogue," said Nasukin Gravelle of the Tobacco Plains First Nation.
"The missing piece here is Canada's seeming refusal to participate in a joint reference submission to get the ball rolling on viable, science-based solutions. It's a disappointment and a sad day for reconciliation when progress on dealing with the pollution of our waterways is blocked by a federal government."
Company Protests Selenium Limits
Teck has acknowledged the problem.
The company said it has spent $1.2 billion on water treatment and plans to spend a further $750 million. It said about 95 per cent of selenium is now removed from water.
However, it has protested what it calls unreasonably low selenium limits brought in by Montana. It said those limits, which apply to the reservoir shared by both countries, are even lower than natural selenium levels in upstream rivers.
Still, the commission has said that selenium concentrations in some parts of that reservoir — Lake Koocanusa — are more than five times Montana's limits, although the levels are lower elsewhere.