Elk Valley mining puts international treaty at risk: U.S. officials

U.S. representatives criticize Canada’s inaction on selenium pollution in transboundary waters.

Canadian governments’ failure to address the ongoing flow of mining contaminants from Elk Valley coal mines into transboundary waters puts the country at risk of violating an international treaty, according to high-level U.S. officials.

The Free Press has obtained a letter penned by two U.S. representatives, including the chair of the U.S. section, on the International Joint Commission, a committee set up to prevent disputes between the two countries over transboundary waters.

Dated June 20, 2018, and addressed to the U.S. State Department Office of Canadian Affairs Director Cynthia Kierscht, the letter raises concerns about increasing levels of selenium in the Elk River-Lake Koocanusa-Kootenai River watersheds stemming from Teck Resources’ five coal mines in the Elk Valley.

The authors, IJC U.S. Section Chair Lana Pollack and U.S. Commissioner Rich Moy, believe this has implications for the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty and Article IV which states “… boundary waters and waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted to the injury of health or property of the other”.

“The ongoing leaching of mining contaminants, including selenium, into an international river basin is a liability to Canada and the U.S.,” they wrote.

“The U.S. Commissioners firmly agree with the 2016 B.C. Auditor General’s assessment that B.C.’s negligence to address the mining impacts puts Canada at risk of violating Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.”

The letter also criticizes Canada’s reluctance to acknowledge the size of the issue, which has led to an impasse on a new report investigating the human health impacts of selenium in aquatic systems.

With a photo of the Elk River on the cover, the report reviews the current state of knowledge for human health and selenium, and was prepared by the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board over six years.

It found that people relying on subsistence fish harvest may have a substantially higher exposure to selenium than recreational fishers in areas such as the Elk Valley, where selenium concentrations are increasing.

The report recommends sharing health, ecological and environmental data between the two countries to ensure selenium-safe watersheds and to protect human health.

According to the U.S. Commissioners, their Canadian colleagues are unwilling to endorse the report, preferring an earlier version of the report that is “weak on addressing the recently defined impacts of selenium”.

“Selenium is a significant environmental and human health concern in the Elk/Koocanusa drainage in both countries,” reads the letter.

“… selenium concentrations are already four times higher than B.C.’s own drinking water guideline in the Fording River and Line Creek.

“Yet, B.C. still issued mine expansions to a number of Teck’s existing mines.”

The letter brings to light recent exceedances at the Koocanusa reservoir and data from Teck that shows selenium levels are now 70 times higher in the Elk and Fording Rivers as compared to the Flathead.

It also refers to the closure of Well #3 in the District of Sparwood and a number of private wells earlier this year due to elevated selenium levels, as well as the 2014 fish kill at Teck’s Line Creek Operations near Elkford, which led to environmental charges against Teck.

The U.S. Commissioners said it was “reasonably clear” the mining company would have difficulty meeting its commitments in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan after “numerous” delays in the construction of active water treatment plants.

“Selenium will continue to pollute the Elk and Kootenai transboundary waters for hundreds of years if no viable solution is found,” reads the letter.

“There is a question as to whether the technology even exists to remove selenium from large volumes of flowing water and there is no viable solution to remove selenium from groundwater.”

More to come.

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