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John Kerry dragged into fight over U.S. river endangered by B.C. coal mine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waves after his lecture to students at Tokyo Institute of Technology on April 15, 2013. Mr. Kerry may soon get a barrage of letters from environmentalists concerned about pollution emanating from coal mines in southeastern British Columbia.

Junji Kurokawa/Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may soon get a barrage of letters from environmentalists concerned about pollution emanating from coal mines in southeastern British Columbia.

"We expect thousands of people will be writing him," Scott Bosse, of the U.S. conservation group American Rivers, said Tuesday, before releasing the 2013 list of America's most endangered rivers.

The Kootenai River in Montana, which is ranked No. 9 on the list, has its source in Canada, where it is fed by the Elk and Kootenay Rivers.

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Mr. Bosse said the Kootenai (as it is spelled in the U.S.) made the endangered rivers list because of the selenium pollution that flows down the Elk into Lake Koocanusa, which spans the border.

Recent studies in the Elk Valley have raised alarms about the amount of selenium leaching out of Teck Resources Ltd.'s coal mines. Selenium causes deformities in fish eggs and threatens cutthroat trout, bull trout and other aquatic life in the watershed.

The list of America's most endangered rivers is accompanied by an "action alert" urging the organization's 100,000 supporters to ask Mr. Kerry to use the International Joint Commission to protect the Kootenai River.

The IJC is a Canada-U.S. body that deals with issues related to transboundary waters.

"The IJC should investigate and report on the current discharges from the five operating open-pit coal mines, and the current cumulative adverse impacts on water quality," states the alert.

Mr. Bosse said that although Teck has announced plans to use water diversion projects and to build a water-treatment plant to treat the current selenium problems, proposed mine expansion could lead to increased pollution.

"A moratorium on any new mines or mine expansions should be put in place until an independent study of the impact of current and future mines … is completed," the action alert says.

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In a background paper, American Rivers said that "Teck's own data show that they have exceeded British Columbia's selenium standard since 2006, with levels steadily increasing and detectable in Montana and Idaho."

The report said that selenium has already been detected in Kootenai River fish.

The Elk Valley watershed has been under intense scrutiny since the release last month of a University of Montana study that showed selenium levels in the Elk River were 10 times higher than in the nearby Flathead River, which doesn't get any coal mine runoff.

On Monday, the B.C. government announced that Teck has been given a ministerial order, requiring the company to submit a plan for dealing with selenium.

Marcia Smith, Teck's senior vice-president for sustainability, said the company welcomes the B.C. government's approach because it provides a regulatory framework for tackling the problem.

She said Teck will spend $600-million over the next five years reducing selenium and other pollutants.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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