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Get tough with Canada over cross-border mining contaminants, First Nations tell U.S.

Coal mining in Elk Valley impacting watersheds
A coal mining operation in Sparwood, B.C., is shown on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. Indigenous communities on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border are trying to build an alliance with Congress and the Biden administration in hopes of pressuring Ottawa into a bipartisan effort to confront toxic transborder mining runoff. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

In a city of pinstripes and partisan power brokers, Mike Allison sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s in the wrong place — and he knows it.

“I shouldn’t be here,” the denim-clad Indigenous elder suddenly says, fighting tears beneath the brim of his trademark cowboy hat.

“I should be out on the land, working with my kids, teaching them values. I should be teaching them kids how to work with the environment, not fight for it.”

Instead, the Upper Similkameen Indian Band councillor is in a downtown D.C. boardroom, gearing up for a second day of meetings with State Department officials, bureaucrats, diplomats and members of Congress.

Fighting for the environment is exactly what Allison, whose British Columbia First Nation sits just 80 kilometres from the Canada-U.S. border, is doing in the U.S. capital as part of a tribal delegation from across the Pacific Northwest.

Their goal is an alliance with Congress and the Biden administration they hope will pressure Ottawa into a bipartisan effort to confront toxic mining runoff from north of the Canada-U.S. border they say is poisoning their waters.

Indigenous communities in B.C., as well as 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 Elk Valley.

The principal player in the region, Teck Resources, 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, said spokesman Chris Stannell.

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, is just part of the strategy, Stannell said.

Teck describes the plan as “among the largest and most collaborative water quality management and monitoring programs in the world,” alongside water treatment and mitigation efforts the company says have already proven effective.

But selenium levels are still too high, said Rich Janssen, head of the natural resources department with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana.

Janssen wants to be clear: the Indigenous groups in Washington on this day are not trying to end mining in the B.C. Interior, nor do they have any interest in headlines generated by protests or blockades.

But they fear ambitious expansion of mining in B.C. will exponentially worsen the environmental impact in their traditional territories, including Alaska, where open-pit gold and copper mines threaten wild salmon stocks.

“We acknowledge that Teck is trying to keep the water clean after they use it when they’re processing metallurgic coal, but they’re not willing to share their data,” Janssen said.

“With all the testing that we do downstream on the U.S. side, we see the increases in selenium. They’re already impacting our waters.”

The goal for years has been a reference, or investigation, under the auspices of the International Joint Commission — the body that mediates disputes and enforces the terms of the bilateral Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.

Canada, however, has been dragging its feet, said Janssen.

“We just don’t feel that Canada has really been willing to go that route — they’ve kind of been stonewalling us,” he said.

“So we’re here to continue to put pressure on our government officials to encourage Canada to join that process, which we think is a win-win for everyone.”

The delegation met in D.C. last week with Democrat and Republican lawmakers from Alaska, Washington and Montana, as well as officials from the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Among them was Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who was part of a congressional coalition from the Pacific Northwest that complained in 2019 about a controversial mining proposal in the headwaters of the Upper Skagit River in B.C.

Those mining rights were surrendered earlier this year as part of a $24-million buyout funded in part by the province, the state of Washington and conservation groups.

Mining runoff from Canada is an ongoing “issue of concern” for DelBene, said a spokesman who confirmed Friday that the meeting took place but provided no other specific details.

Officials in the Canadian Embassy would only say their meeting with the delegation Wednesday involved “a constructive discussion about mining impacts” and they “look forward to continuing this engagement.”

In June, following meetings with several U.S. tribes, the State Department made its position clear by reaffirming its support for a joint reference to investigate the transboundary impact of Canadian mining in the region.

A mutual, bilateral agreement to examine the issue “would respond to the need for impartial recommendations and transparent communication,” the department said in a statement.

It would also “build trust and forge a common understanding of this issue among local, Indigenous, state, provincial and federal governments, as well as stakeholders and the public in both countries.”

The federal government is developing regulations under the Fisheries Act in an effort to mitigate the potential impact of mining effluent, said Samantha Bayard, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada.

That approach “will include the establishment of national baseline effluent quality standards for deleterious substances of concern, including selenium,” Bayard said in a statement.

As for transborder pollution, she said, Ottawa “is considering a variety of options.”

While the bulk of the mining activity in the region is relatively old-school — coal, gold, silver and copper — conservationists also fear a looming new North American extraction frenzy, this one in search of the precious, climate-friendly critical minerals that now fuel life in the 21st century.

On Friday in Vancouver, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson released Canada’s new plan to prioritize the extraction of lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, copper and rare earth elements.

Critical minerals comprise a “generational opportunity” for Canada, said Wilkinson, who promises “meaningful and ongoing Indigenous partnership” in pursuit of the country’s “ambitious climate and nature protection goals.”

But Canada needs to deal with the old mess before it starts a new one, said Robin Irwin, the head of Upper Similkameen’s natural resources department.

“Before you start permitting the exploration and expansion of these major open-pit mines, at what point are you going to clean up these hundreds of messes that have been left,” Irwin said.

Toxic levels of arsenic have been detected in and around the tiny community of Hedley, B.C., where open dump sites of cyanide-filled barrels have been sitting for decades on the banks of the Similkameen River, she added.

“The companies go bankrupt and the permits expire, and it’s now the responsibility of the Crown to be cleaning up these sites,” Irwin said.

“These companies come in that get a permit from the province, they take everything that they want out of the land, they leave a big scar, and they seem to have no legal or even moral responsibility for remediating those sites.”

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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