After years of delays and false starts, eight governments impacted by an expansive Canadian coal-mining operation are set to meet today on Indigenous territory in Cranbrook, British Columbia, to discuss the future of the governments’ shared waterways.

The meeting will include representatives from the federal governments of the United States and Canada and the Ktunaxa Nation Council, which advocates for the interests of six bands of Indigenous people spread across present-day British Columbia, Montana and Idaho. The council, which includes representation from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has for years asked for greater oversight of Teck Resources’ British Columbia-based coal-mining operation.

Credit: Montana DEQ

“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 river,” Chelsea Colwyn, an attorney for the CSKT, told the Canadian Press last week.

Waterborne mining pollution has degraded water quality and impacted fisheries on both sides of the border, including Canada’s Elk River, the border-spanning Lake Koocanusa, and the Kootenai (spelled “Kootenay” in Canada) River, which winds through British Columbia, Montana and Idaho before joining in the Columbia River just north of Washington state. High mining-related concentrations of selenium, a chemical element that can hamper reproductive success in fish and lead to spinal, facial and gill deformities, is suspected in the crash of westslope cutthroat trout populations on British Columbia’s Upper Fording River and the decline of mountain whitefish and burbot populations in Montana and Idaho. 

Once present in a waterway, selenium is nearly impossible to remove, so mitigation efforts have thus far focused on preventing its introduction into waterways. Mining company Teck Resources, headquartered in Vancouver, B.C.,  has made that a focus of its $1.4 billion effort to remove selenium from piles of waste rock before it can drain into the Elk River and other connected waters, but selenium concentrations have continued to increase.

Despite Teck’s $1.4 billion investment in water treatment technology, selenium concentrations continue to rise in Lake Koocanusa, which straddles the U.S.- Canada border. Selenium measurements have rarely dropped below the water body’s water quality threshold. Credit: Courtesy USGS

Tribal governments have long asked the U.S., Canada and the province of British Columbia to refer the issue to the International Joint Commission, an organization created by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 comprising an equal number of Canadian and American commissioners.

If the IJC conducts an investigation into mining pollution, all parties will have a common set of information upon which they can base regulatory decisions, according to Erin Sexton, a Flathead Lake Biological Station research scientist who has worked as a technical adviser to the CSKT on transboundary mining issues for the better part of two decades. The IJC could also recommend, though not enforce the implementation of, solutions to address the pollution.

In August, the provincial government of British Columbia, long considered to be a holdout on the referral question, expressed willingness to involve the IJC. Teck’s coal-mining operation is one of the largest industries in British Columbia, valued at more than $8 billion U.S. and sustaining some 30,000 jobs. In Canada, provincial governments are given greater authority to regulate water quality within their boundaries than state governments in the U.S., so onlookers have described British Columbia’s cooperation as an important development.


The selenium battle of Lake Koocanusa

In late March, the state Board of Environmental Review sided with a Canadian mining company in its assertion that the Department of Environmental Quality broke Montana law when it adopted a strict new standard for selenium pollution entering Lake Koocanusa, which straddles the U.S.-Canada border. DEQ is holding firm to its standard — and that could have repercussions for Teck Coal’s plans to expand its British Columbia coal mining operation.

Sexton said all that’s needed now is Canada’s federal cooperation. 

“The only entities in the world that can invite the IJC into this watershed through the Boundary Waters Treaty are the U.S. and Canada, so that is the ask that is squarely on the table to the United States and Canada,” Sexton said. “We implore you … to bring the IJC into this watershed.”

Sexton added that she hopes today’s conversation, in which she’ll be participating, will lay the groundwork for more transparency and inclusivity in conversions regarding Teck’s mining operation. That’s particularly important, she said, because Teck has been collecting its own water quality data and assessing its own compliance with its British Columbia-issued mining permit. There’s frustration surrounding the availability and integrity of that data, she said.

Sexton said Teck is not expected to participate in today’s talks.

“This is government-to-government,” she said.

“The only entities in the world that can invite the [International Joint Commission] into this watershed through the Boundary Waters Treaty are the U.S. and Canada, so that is the ask that is squarely on the table to the United States and Canada.”

Erin Sexton, consultant to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

The Ktunaxa Nation is hopeful that some kind of an agreement will be reached by the end of the year, Sexton said.

In March, U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to reach an agreement “in principle” by the end of the summer to address the pollution issue. After that deadline passed, the Ktunaxa Nation Council extended the invitation to both federal governments that laid the groundwork for today’s meeting. 

In an email to Montana Free Press, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department underscored the Biden administration’s commitment to work with Indigenous nations to reduce and mitigate water pollution impacts in order to “deliver environmental justice to communities overburdened by pollution.”

The spokesperson added that the U.S and Canada are in active discussions to “safeguard our shared waters while employing responsible mining practices.”

 “We look forward to a productive dialogue,” the email continued. 


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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...