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Tribes seek U.S. help to curb Canadian mining threats to Northwestern states

Argonaut commercial Wharf near Campbell River on Vancouver Island
Alex Ratson/Getty Images
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Campbell River, BC , CAN - October , 31, 2021: Argonaut Wharf near Campbell River is the primary export port for the Myra Falls mine in Strathcona Provincial Park on Sunday October 31, 2021. Myra Falls primarily mines minerals such as zinc, lead, copper, silver and gold which after being processed is exported from Canada to Asia via freighter ship. (Photo by Alex Ratson via Getty Images)

Native American leaders asking for the countries to refer matter to the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canada partnership created to oversee water issues

Indigenous leaders from the Northwest renewed their call this week for the federal government to pressure Canada to stop additional mining activity in British Columbia, which they say contaminates waters and threatens Native American ways of life in Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

As British Columbia plans to expand its profitable coal, copper and gold mining industry, Indigenous representatives met in Washington, D.C., with members of Congress and the U.S. departments of State and Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Canadian consulate, they said.

“BC is moving full-steam ahead with doubling their amount of mines,” said Jill Weitz, the natural resource manager for the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Tribes of Alaska, who was part of the delegation. “Tribes and downstream communities do not have a meaningful seat at the table as it relates to the management of these shared rivers and resources that everyone is dependent upon.”

Mining in the Canadian province already leaks selenium, a chemical that can be toxic to aquatic life, into watersheds affecting the Northwestern U.S. states, including lands that belong to tribes.

Spending on mineral and coal exploration in British Columbia increased by 56% in 2021 over 2020, reaching $660 million, according to a study for the provincial government.

The damage from mining pollution can be permanent, said Rich Janssen Jr., the head of the Department of Natural Resources for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana and Idaho.

“We never want to see degradation of our earth, our aboriginal territory that we utilize even today,” he said. “Once mining impacts occur, it’s very difficult to clean them up.”

“We’re not against mining at all,” Janssen added. “But we’re against mining that doesn’t do the environment justice.”

Native American leaders asking to refer issue to bi-national commission

The Native American leaders are asking for the countries to refer the matter to the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canada partnership created to oversee water issues between the two nations.

The U.S. State Department supports a referral, and could make one unilaterally under the terms that set up the commission.

But disputes historically have only been resolved when both countries recognize the need to meet, Weitz said. The group hopes pressure from high-level U.S. officials would help Canada agree to go to the commission.

Native American leaders first made the request for a referral 10 years ago, according to a Nov. 23 letter to President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“In the decade that has passed since our initial request, contamination flowing from the Elk Valley Coal mines in Southeast British Columbia has increased to record levels,” a group of tribal and Canadian First Nation leaders, including Chairman Tom McDonald of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Chairwoman Jennifer Porter of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, wrote in the letter.

Canada is obligated, under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 that codified water management between the two countries and created the International Joint Commission, to minimize pollution, Weitz said.

By polluting water that crosses the international border “Canada is abdicating their duties and obligations under that treaty,” Weitz said.

The Canadian government has not shared its data on water quality, Janssen said, but samples in the United States showed increases in selenium, he said

“We just need Canada and the British Columbia province to come to the table and admit that this is an issue,” he said. “We don’t need to look at it anymore; we don’t need to study it anymore. The data’s there. It’s a no-brainer to me.”

Southeast Alaska tribes have also asked for a pause in new mining permits and approvals to expand existing mines “until a formal consultation process is in place,” Weitz added.

D.C. meetings on selenium pollution

The group met Tuesday and Wednesday with U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, a Democrat from Alaska, members from Washington state and executive branch offices to reiterate their request that the International Joint Commission look into the issue.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, has also had frequent meetings on the issue and led a bipartisan 2019 letter to Canadian authorities to express concern over “the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects near multiple transboundary rivers.”

Tester wrote a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last year asking for an International Joint Commission referral.

In the letter, Tester highlighted the potential impacts to Montana’s $7 billion outdoor recreation industry and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ fisheries. He also noted that mining operators responsible for catastrophic selenium pollution were using water treatment methods that have not been reviewed by the U.S. EPA.

In a written statement Thursday, Tester pledged he’d work to reach a resolution to the issue.

“For decades, mining operations along the Canadian Elk River have contaminated the Kootenai River watershed and threatened that way of life,” he said. “I will continue to defend Montana and stand up for our small businesses and communities until this issue is addressed.”

A leading member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Tester claimed credit in 2019 for a $1.5 million provision in a spending bill to improve monitoring for transboundary watersheds.

The State Department has also previously endorsed an IJC referral. In a June press release following a meeting with tribal leaders, a department spokesperson said the department “reaffirmed the administration’s support” for a referral.

“A joint reference would respond to the need for impartial recommendations and transparent communication, 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 spokesperson said.

Diana Tan, a spokesperson for the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said Canadian diplomats met with tribes and other advocates this week for “constructive discussion” but did not commit to any steps beyond continuing the conversation.

“On December 7th, the Embassy of Canada in Washington DC was pleased to meet with a visiting group of First Nations, Tribes, and environmental groups for a constructive discussion about mining impacts,” Tan wrote in an email. “We look forward to continuing this engagement.”

The State Department did not return a message seeking comment this week.

A spokesperson for the Interior Department declined to comment.

Representatives for the EPA did not return messages seeking comment.

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