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Kootenay watershed pollution discussions ongoing between Canada, U.S.

Dialogue between Canada and the United States over mining pollution concerns in the Kootenay watershed remains ongoing amid calls to refer the matter to an independent entity for investigation.
Lake Koocanusa. Photo submitted.

Dialogue between Canada and the United States over mining pollution concerns in the Kootenay watershed remains ongoing amid calls to refer the matter to an independent entity for investigation.

A spokesperson with Global Affairs Canada referenced a joint statement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden earlier in March that pledged an agreement in principle “by this summer” to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the watershed.

“Discussions among our officials, and with Indigenous nations and tribes, have accelerated on this issue,” said the spokesperson.

A number of Indigenous Nations in the Columbia Basin region, have been seeking a reference to the International Joint Commission (IJC) to study the transboundary water quality issues and provide recommendations.

The IJC is an entity created through the Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States in 1909 as a way to investigate and resolve transboundary water issues. For the case involving the Kootenay watershed, the calls for an IJC reference revolve around pollution concerns from coal mining in the Elk Valley, where four coal mines are operated by Teck Resources Ltd.

While the United States government signaled support for the process last year, the Canadian federal government has been hesitant to commit to an referral, allegedly in part to resistance from the B.C. government in the past.

In a statement, the B.C.’s environment ministry says it supports the commitment made by Trudeau and Biden, and has proposed a role for the International Joint Commission to act as a neutral third party and bring representatives together to share progress, data and information that is respectful and inclusive of Indigenous knowledge.

However, the ministry statement also noted it’s support for any involvement by the IJC is contingent on a a recognition of B.C.’s regulatory framework and that the commission takes a neutral role.

“The Province maintains our view that any transboundary process must respect regulatory authority, not be duplicative of existing efforts, and must add additional value to the ongoing work on both sides of the border,” reads the statement.

In July, the Ktunaxa Nation — including the four Indigenous governments in Canada along with Ksanka Band, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho in the U.S. — submitted its own proposal that would see a reference to the IJC, while also establishing a Ktunaxa-federal action plan.

According to the Ktunaxa Nation, the two-pronged approach would be based on two aspects.

Firstly, an IJC-established Watershed Board would conduct an independent, transparent and accountable scientific assessment of pollution in the watershed. Secondly, a Ktunaxa-federal action plan would implement solutions, restore waters and address violations of environmental regulations in Canada and the United States.

Specific details of the Ktunaxa Nation’s proposal remain confidential, while Canada and the United States have yet to formally respond to the submission.

However, the intent is to address “long-standing mining pollution in the Elk-Kootenai/y watershed,” according to a Ktunaxa Nation Council press release.

“Our proposal contemplates the full involvement of our Nations in building long-term solutions to this problem,” said Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation Council Chair. “As the stewards of this place for more than 10,000 years, there can be no solutions or assessment of this watershed without deep and meaningful partnership with the Ktunaxa ʔaqǂsmaknik.”

Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
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