U.S. senators say Canadian pollution putting cross-border rivers in danger
A fly fisherman casts on the Kootenai River, downstream of the Koocanusa Reservoir at the centre of the dispute, near the Montana-Idaho border and Leonia, Idaho, on Sept. 19, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP - The Spokesman Review, Rich Landers
Eight U.S. senators say Canadian mines in British Columbia are endangering cross-border rivers through a combination of poor environmental assessments and inadequate monitoring.
"We remain concerned about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary rivers that originate in B.C. and flow into our four U.S. states," says a June 13 letter signed by the senators and addressed to B.C. Premier John Horgan.
The senators are from Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.
The letter fans a long-running dispute over pollution from coal mines in the southern part of the province.
While previous U.S. worries have been expressed by bureaucrats, this letter comes from politicians and extends the concerns to B.C.'s northern border with Alaska.
"They're concerned that B.C.'s regulatory system for mining just isn't keeping the water clean," said Lars Sanders-Green, who speaks for a coalition of 35 environmental groups.
"The Americans are seeing the same problem that we're seeing, which is that B.C.'s mining laws are ancient."
A B.C. government spokesman was not immediately available for comment. The province has signed agreements on transboundary waters with Alaska, Montana and Washington.
The dispute's roots are in the Elk Valley coal mines owned by Teck Resources in southern B.C. Digging coal releases selenium, an element healthy in trace amounts, but one that can cause gastrointestinal disorders, nerve damage, cirrhosis of the liver and death in large doses. In fish, it causes reproductive failure.
A 2018 report found all five waterways flowing into the transboundary Koocanusa reservoir have selenium levels at the maximum or above B.C.'s drinking water guidelines. Two are four times higher.
Selenium levels in the Elk and Fording rivers are 70 times those in the Flathead River, which doesn't get runoff from Teck's five mines.
University of Montana researchers have found Elk River stations near the mines are reporting levels 50 times what's recommended for aquatic health. Near the city of Fernie, B.C., readings are 10 times that level.
In 2017, Teck was fined $1.7 million over the selenium.
Last year, U.S. members of a panel that regulates cross-border waterways accused their Canadian counterparts of blocking the release of damning new data about the pollution.
The senators who signed the letter, both Republicans and Democrats, want Canada to do better.
They note U.S. agencies have already begun to address concerns over B.C.'s mines. Monitoring of water coming from Canada has been increased and American Indigenous bands have joined in to address contamination risks.
"Members of Congress ... have called for oversight and accountability measures in shared transboundary watershed equivalent to those on the U.S. side," the letter says.
"Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Montana have tremendous natural resources that need to be protected against impacts from B.C. hard rock and coal mining."
The Americans want stronger decision-making on mine construction, better environmental reviews and more research to plug data gaps and monitor long-term effects.
Teck mines employ 4,000 workers. The company has said it's following a water-quality plan and will spend up to $900 million over the next five years on new treatment plants.
Sylvain Leclerc of Global Affairs Canada said Ottawa is aware of the issue.
"We are committed to working co-operatively with the United States to ensure that our respective transboundary interests are protected on both sides of the border," he said in an email.
"U.S. federal and state interests have been involved in Canadian and B.C. environmental assessments for proposed projects in British Columbia."