Skip to main content

The Canadian and U.S. governments have agreed to put the issue of cross-border pollution from B.C. coal mines before the International Joint Commission, a body set up more than a century ago to resolve conflicts over shared waters.

The request, made through what is known as a joint reference under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, follows years of campaigning by Indigenous peoples and was developed with the Ktunaxa Nation, an Indigenous people whose traditional territory takes in parts of British Columbia, Montana and Idaho.

“It’s a matter of our perseverance finally coming around to a positive outcome,” Kathryn Teneese, chair of the B.C.-based Ktunaxa Nation Council, said Monday in an interview.

“Industrial activities have been taking place in Elk Valley, but our voice has never really been taken into consideration until fairly recent history. So the idea that we finally have a piece of the puzzle to try to address the concerns that we’ve been raising is something we are more than happy to embrace,” she said.

The agreement, announced Monday in a joint statement by Canadian and U.S. government officials, is the latest development in a dispute over the extent and impact of pollution resulting from coal mines operated in southeastern B.C. by Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd.

Indigenous groups have called for an IJC reference for more than a decade, citing risks from substances such as selenium to fish, birds and human health.

In March, 2023, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden announced they would come up with a plan by the summer to deal with pollution flowing from coal mines in Elk Valley, in southeastern B.C., into waters including Lake Koocanusa, a reservoir that straddles the Canada-U.S. border. When summer passed without an agreement, the Ktunaxa Nation renewed its calls for the issue to go before the IJC.

Teck says it is working with Indigenous peoples, communities and governments to protect aquatic health and share data. It has made significant progress implementing the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, which is improving water quality in the region, Teck spokesman Chris Stannell said in an e-mail.

He said that Teck has increased its water-treatment capacity by four times since 2020 and that facilities are removing 95 per cent of selenium from treated water.

Data confirm selenium levels in the Koocanusa Reservoir are safe, do not pose a risk to aquatic or human health and are lower than in many other waterbodies in the state of Montana, Mr. Stannell said.

But updates for the Elk Valley Water Treatment Plan, approved by the province in 2014, show the amount of selenium and nitrate remaining in the Elk River far exceeds the amount being removed through treatment.

And there is disagreement over the impact of selenium on fish and aquatic health.

B.C.’s multimillion-dollar mining problem

At the top of the CN Tower, a rare study of winter air pollution is under way

A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey confirms contamination is coming from those mines, adding the efforts by Teck to slow those releases aren’t making much difference to the amount flowing south.

The report estimates that in 1985 just under two tonnes of selenium flowed down the Elk River into Lake Koocanusa. By last year, that had grown to nearly 11 tonnes.

The study, published last November, said water quality guidelines for selenium are now regularly exceeded on both sides of the border.

In a statement, B.C. government officials said the province sees the involvement of the IJC as an opportunity to build on existing work and enhance information sharing and transparency.

Gary Aitken Jr., vice-chairman of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, called the announcement an important first step in addressing pollution in the watershed.

The agreement calls for a governance body to be set up by June 30, 2024, with a final research report due two years later.

That is an aggressive timeline, but the issue calls for urgent action, Ms. Teneese said, adding that the Ktunaxa Nation is prepared to make its studies and experts available to the IJC.

“And I’m hopeful that commitment is across the board – that by agreeing to this, that the U.S. and Canada are also agreeing to roll up their sleeves and get the work done,” she said.

This past November, Teck announced a US$8.9-billion deal to sell its steel-making coal business, with a majority stake going to Swiss commodities trading giant Glencore PLC and a minority interest to two Asian steelmakers.

In January, Teck said the minority interest sale to POSCO and Nippon had closed and that the majority interest sale to Glencore is expected to close later this year, subject to regulatory approvals.

Glencore has said it is committed to the Elk Valley water treatment plan Teck has put in place.

With a report from The Canadian Press

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe