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Canada, U.S. to meet with Indigenous leaders in B.C. over pollution issues

Indigenous groups in both countries have been clamouring for years for a bilateral investigation of selenium contamination from B.C. coal mines owned by Teck Resources
Teck's Elk Valley coal operations. The B.C.-based coal miner is facing legal action in an American court over levels of a contaminant from its mines in U.S. waters. | Submitted

Canadian and U.S. officials are expected to meet next week with Indigenous leaders as they work on cleaning up toxic mining run-off that's polluting waters on both sides of the border. 

Ktunaxa Nation officials say the meeting will take place Nov. 9 on Indigenous territory in Cranbrook, B.C. 

Indigenous groups in both countries have been clamouring for years for a bilateral investigation of selenium contamination from B.C. coal mines owned by Teck Resources. 

An end-of-summer deadline for an agreement in principle, announced in March by President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has since come and gone. 

Tribal and Indigenous leaders want Canada to agree to a joint investigation under the terms of the International Joint Commission, which oversees transboundary waters. 

But consensus has not been forthcoming, even though the B.C. government ended its opposition to such an investigation earlier this year. 

"While we are glad to share this news, and anxious to begin the real work of restoring our waters, we remain committed to finding a solution that will actually heal our rivers," said Chelsea Colwyn, a spokesperson for the Indigenous leaders. 

That means ensuring that the agreement includes an investigation, known as a joint reference, as well as a "watershed board" for the commission to assess the scope of the problem. 

The board would carry out an "independent, transparent and accountable scientific assessment" of the pollution and make recommendations on how best to restore the health of the watershed, Colwyn added. 

The State Department said in a statement that the U.S. remains committed to "reducing and mitigating" the impact of pollution in the Elk-Kootenay watershed, in partnership with Indigenous groups on both sides of the border. 

"We are actively discussing actions with Canada, as well as with U.S. tribes, to address the pollution to safeguard our shared waters while employing responsible mining practices," the statement said. 

Timelines "for an announcement of our progress" were also part of the discussion during bilateral meetings just last month, although no other details were released. 

The Elk and Kootenay rivers, spelled Kootenai in the U.S., feed a watershed that lies within the transboundary Columbia River basin, which has been the subject of ongoing treaty discussions since 2018.

Canada's reluctance to agree to joint reference under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 has bewildered and frustrated tribal and Indigenous leaders and environmentalists for years.

Communities in B.C., Washington state, Idaho and Montana have been contending for more than a decade with selenium and other toxins leaching into their watershed from coal mining operations in the province's Elk Valley.

Following Biden's meetings with Trudeau in Ottawa in March, the two leaders vowed to work toward "an agreement in principle by this summer to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watershed."

Teck Resources says it has already spent more than $1.2 billion in an effort to fix the problem, with plans for $750 million more over the next two years.

The company's strategy includes the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, developed with help from Indigenous stakeholders, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state government in Montana, the B.C. government and Ottawa.

Teck has described the plan as one of the largest and most collaborative water quality management and monitoring programs in the world, and insists its water treatment and mitigation efforts have already proven effective.

But Indigenous leaders remain deeply skeptical, insisting that toxicity levels still exceed acceptable levels.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press