Kootenay River Teck Elk Valley mines selenium-21

12 years in the making: the cross-border investigation that’s a ‘pretty big deal’

Here’s why a decision to finally pursue a joint Canada-U.S. inquiry into water pollution from B.C. coal mines matters
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A silver boat sits calmly on deep blue still water in the Koocanusa Reservoir as researchers sample water.


“That’s a pretty big deal,” B.C. biodiversity reporter Ainslie Cruickshank thought to herself when the news broke.

After nearly 12 years of Ktunaxa Nation pressuring the U.S. and Canadian governments to intervene, government officials said this week they will ask the International Joint Commission to launch an inquiry into pollution from the Elk Valley coal mines currently owned by Teck Resources.

Why, exactly, was the announcement so huge?

For decades, selenium has leached into the waterways of southeast British Columbia, making its way down to Montana and Idaho. Canada and the U.S. have repeatedly resisted calls for an investigation by the commission, which was established under a treaty to address transboundary water issues.

Ainslie has long reported on Teck’s mines — she even embarked on a six-day reporting trip with photojournalist Jesse Winter back in 2021 to trace the flow of selenium pollution from B.C. to Idaho. Not a single stop on that route went by without First Nations, Tribal governments, scientists or community members sharing their concerns with her: excess levels of selenium were wreaking havoc on aquatic life.

The data Ainslie found painted a potentially bleak picture for fish. Selenium can cause curved spines, deformed skulls and abnormal gills — if they manage to hatch, that is. That also spelled bad news for the communities relying on fish, including rainbow trout, for food. The impacts go far beyond fish, of course: just one of Teck’s Elk Valley mines is approved to disturb an area larger than 10,000 Canadian football fields.

 
Reporter Ainslie Cruickshank speaking with Erin Sexton, a research scientist at the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station, on the Koocanusa Reservoir just above Libby Dam.
Canada, U.S. launch international inquiry into southeast B.C. mine pollution

Since Ainslie’s trip, prospects for an inquiry were up in the air as Teck and the B.C. government lobbied against an investigation, while the feds flip-flopped on their support for one. Montana, meanwhile, sided with Teck and tried to water down its own pollution standards.

The mining giant has spent more than $1.4 billion to address the pollution, but selenium is still being detected at levels way above what’s considered safe for fish.

For the Ktunaxa Nation Council, which represents four First Nations in B.C., the hope is that the inquiry will be “the beginning of a collaborative, transparent and effective process that will restore the waterways in the heart of ʔamakʔis Ktunaxa [Ktunaxa territory] that are vital to the Ktunaxa ʔakⱡsmaknik (people).”

“But that’s just the start of a long process,” Ainslie reminded me. “I’ll be keeping an eye out for new research and understanding about the impacts of this pollution that come out of the study board — which is bringing together knowledge holders and scientists — and ultimately what recommendations and plans will be developed to address the contamination.”

Take care and don’t keep people waiting too long, 

Karan Saxena
Audience engagement editor

 
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