Concern over potential for pollution
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made a veiled threat to take Canada to the International Joint Commission in a dispute over plans to expand coal production in the Elk River Valley of southeastern B.C., near the Montana border.
The threat was made in a letter that outlines concerns about the potential for pollution running down B.C.’s Elk and Fording rivers into Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River in Montana. The letter was sent to Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent in December by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.
She told Kent she hopes the federal and B.C. governments will support a study of the cumulative effects of existing and planned coal mine expansion in the area, mostly by Teck Resources Ltd.
“A co-operative bilateral approach on potential mine development in the Elk River Valley could obviate the need for a joint reference to the International Joint Commission,” wrote Jackson, who resigned last month.
The U.S. government is under pressure from Montana’s senators, who wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State in September complaining about the threat to the “treasured” Kootenai-Koocanusa watersheds.
Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester argued mine expansion may be a violation of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
The treaty established the International Joint Commission to settle cross-border disputes involving pollution of rivers and lakes. It is made up of three Americans appointed by the president and three by Canada’s federal cabinet.
The letters from the EPA and the senators complained Canadian authorities are examining coal projects on a piecemeal basis and are not considering overall impacts, including the “significant and continuing” increase in selenium leaching from waste rock into rivers and lakes.
Selenium is a “naturally occurring substance that is toxic at high concentrations,” according to the EPA.
A spokesman for Environment Minister Peter Kent said there hasn’t been a formal referral to the International Joint Commission.
Rob Taylor said officials from the EPA and Montana are participating in the B.C. government’s review of Teck’s Line Creek mine expansion proposal. There will also be American participation in a planned federal review of Centermount Coal Ltd.’s proposal to construct the Bingay mine about 21 kilometres north of Elkford.
Teck spokesman Chris Stannell said his company has submitted regulatory applications for two mines, Line Creek and Fording River, to “extend the life of the existing mines and maintain jobs at those operations.”
He said the applications do, in fact, consider the cumulative impact of all the Teck mines on the health of the watershed, and the company is proposing “significant investments” in water treatment facilities and water diversions.
The expansion of coal production in the area has drawn interest from environmental groups who say the mines threaten water quality and aquatic life in an important international watershed.
The coal is exported to Asian steelmakers.