Elk Valley mining

The watershed watchers: in conversation with the International Joint Commission

Canada and the U.S. are bound together by waterways that transcend political borders. But what happens when industrial development changes those waters in ways that could last hundreds of years?

Two years ago at this time I had just returned from a reporting trip in B.C.’s scenic Elk Valley, where I had seen the region’s coal mines — the largest in the province — with my own eyes for the first time. 

Selenium pollution in the Elk Valley watershed, which is linked to fish and bird deformities and the collapse of treasured trout populations, is on the rise. And because the Elk Valley watershed drains into the Koocanusa reservoir, which crosses the B.C.-Montana border, the province’s selenium problem is now raising the ire of our neighbours to the south

When the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty was signed between Canada and the U.S. to protect our shared waters, it would have been hard to imagine the kind of industrial-scale natural resource extraction we now see in the Elk Valley. And yet, more than 100 years on, these two nations are forced to confront the challenge of co-managing ecological tapestries that know no such thing as a border. 

So when things like selenium levels start to get out of hand, who do you call? The members of the International Joint Commission (IJC), for starters. The commission makes decisions on projects that can affect water levels and flow and can investigate, monitor and recommend against pollution in boundary waters shared between Canada and the U.S.


As the world awaits a transition of power after the recent U.S. election, The Narwhal spoke with one Canadian commissioner, Merrell-Ann Phare, and one American commissioner, Rob Sisson, about the role the International Joint Commission can play in reimagining the way North America manages its shared watersheds.

Carol Linnitt: Merrell-Ann, can you talk about what exactly we mean when we say transboundary watersheds? Where should people’s brains be going on the map?

Merrell-Ann Phare: Think of everywhere the Canada-U.S. boundary is. Either a water that flows from one side to the other side or that’s actually situated on the boundary. The Great Lakes are a perfect example of that.

For practical purposes, plain language, if you think about everywhere the boundary is, you’re looking at the land that those rivers and lakes across the boundary, the land that they’re situated in, including the people that are there, the ecosystems that are there, the plants and animals and various aspects of water health, including quality and quantity rate of flow, surface water, groundwater.

You’re really trying to look at the whole package in order to make a good decision in the thing that we have jurisdiction over, which is the boundary.

Rob Sisson: The attention [to] groundwater is increasing. I think there are five or six major aquifers that straddle the boundary between the two countries as well.

Carol Linnitt: It’s interesting to think about since this commission was founded and some treaties were signed, not only has our understanding of ecological impacts and ecological systems really evolved but so too has our sense of who ought to participate and who should have a voice in the way that watersheds are managed and the way that projects and their impacts are measured.

Merrell-Ann Phare: I have worked in these issues my whole life and feel strongly that the solutions to our water issues flow from having the people at the table … that both have rights and have the knowledge and are impacted by the waters.

Indigenous Peoples are key peoples that have been excluded from that decision many times, most of the time in the life of the IJC. We many years ago — long before any of the current commissioners were on the commission — had begun a whole number of projects with Indigenous people.

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Some of the most interesting ones that we can talk about are for example, in the Rainy River-Lake of the Woods area, where we partnered to do some fascinating studies, incorporating Traditional Knowledge and Western science together to figure out better ways to manage, for example, in that situation, hydro dams — how to change the flows and which time of year in order to protect sturgeon spawning grounds and which are critical to the treaty rights of Indigenous people there and are part of their sustainable livelihoods.

That’s a good example, and that work has been going on for some time. I think what the commissioners are also interested in … is thinking consistently across all of our cohorts and across our programs: how do we be systematic, consistent, transparent about the role of Indigenous Peoples in the decision-making?

Rob Sisson: If I can add to that, one of my dreams for the IJC, I don’t think it’ll happen during my tenure here, but hopefully, we’ve planted the seed that the governments will eventually give the IJC the ability to create international watershed boards across the entire transboundary so there’s not one inch on the boundary where we don’t have a presence.

I see those boards as a fantastic way to bring Indigenous voices to bear on our work and on the management and protection of water along the entire transboundary. I’m very excited about Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

We’ve been dominated at the IJC and elsewhere by Western science. The more I learn about Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the more I’m just amazed at what I didn’t know, and the wisdom that Indigenous people can bring to the table.

Read more: Meet the scientists embracing traditional Indigenous knowledge

Carol Linnitt: Our readership is really familiar with the ongoing problems with selenium and other pollutants in the Elk Valley watershed. It looks like that contamination is going to be making its way into that watershed and ecosystem for potentially hundreds of years. What is the commission’s role and how does the commission view and understand that problem right now?

Merrell-Ann Phare: I can start with just the role of the commission, and then maybe Rob can talk more specifically about his views on the situation. In that situation, of course, a company like Teck [Resources] would be regulated by the federal and provincial government in Canada. The IJC has no jurisdiction over that. 

What we do though, is we become involved under the treaty if there’s an impact on waters along the transboundary or from one side to the other, and that is the case here.

We have only certain levers in our toolkit at the IJC because we’re not a government. We’re created by governments. Our levers are we can alert governments to problems that we see, we can recommend that we be given a reference that helps.

A reference is a process where we are asked by governments to study the issue and come back with recommendations to try to solve the problem or prevent conflict. That’s usually a multi-year process, very expensive but it really gets at the science and Traditional Knowledge.

Knowledge is behind the issue and it gives us an opportunity to involve basically all of the local people and provide a final report to government that sets out research, findings and recommendations.

We have asked for a reference to deal with mining issues and water quality issues [in the Elk Valley] … and we’re waiting to hear on that.

We would be very interested in doing a study that encompassed this and other mining issues to try to deal with this vexing issue, but have yet to be asked.

Rob Sisson: Yes, the Elk River — coal mining has been there for a long time. As with a lot of industrial processes, we didn’t know what issues might occur or might be there because we just forged ahead … and obviously we know now that selenium could be an issue.

We just released a long-awaited document on the human health impact of selenium, not targeting the Elk River valley or Teck, but just in general what selenium impacts on human health could be. We do know in that watershed, it’s having an impact on fish reproduction and populations and we also know and I want to stress that the two governments are working very closely on this.

I’m an angler. I love fly fishing and the Elk River-Kootenay system is close to where I live and so that’s something I keep an eye on. I think this is one of the watersheds where we could benefit from a watershed board because when you have a situation like this, there’s a lot of distrust: is the other side doing enough? Are they paying attention? Are they sharing with us all the information? Does the company really care or not? 

I think if you had a watershed board in place, if we had one in place historically, there’d be relationships already built, trust lines of communication built where I think this would flow a lot easier and there might be less controversy, less anger and more — my favourite phrase — more rowing the boat in the same direction to try to find a solution and implement it.

Carol Linnitt: I’m curious even myself: what exactly do you see a board doing? If there was a board that was designated to work on these kinds of issues, how would that board intervene in the Elk Valley in particular?

Rob Sisson: In general, a Kootenay-Elk River system board … would have local community leaders and members, NGO representatives, hopefully someone from the mining industry involved, state, local, federal government officials all together and citizens who are concerned. Primarily it would be communication- and relationship- building because that’s how you address problems.

“Because of the tailing piles, this problem could be with us for 1,000 years.”

Specifically, in this case, if the governments someday give the IJC a reference here, they could ask us to consolidate and manage or oversee the water quality testing to give everyone confidence on both sides that the measurements are accurate and true and protocols are being followed.

Because of the tailing piles, this problem could be with us for 1,000 years. They could give the IJC a reference at some point, just sort of a permanent bi-national body that’s keeping an eye and monitoring the situation hopefully for centuries.

Elk Valley Teck Resources Coal Waste Rock

A pile of waste rock at a Teck Resources’ mine in B.C.’s Elk Valley. Waste rock piles leach selenium into the watershed, leading to pollution problems that have caused fish deformities and the contamination of drinking water. Photo: Callum Gunn

Merrell-Ann: In terms of Indigenous governments having a role and Indigenous peoples having a role, that’s a huge piece. But remember, part of the reason we’ve suggested a reference on this topic is because there may be governance reform that’s required in order to prevent these kinds of problems in the future, particularly given the role of local governments, the role of Indigenous governments, et cetera.

Thinking about it from the scientific and Indigenous Knowledge side … what is the science actually telling us and what can we do? There’s a technology aspect to it, but there’s also a governance aspect. … A reference could help us frame out the key things that a watershed board would do.

Normally our boards, particularly the old ones … look at water quality and quantity. They don’t really look at anything beyond that. This is a much more complex and diverse problem. That’s where watershed boards come in because they have a mandate to look at all the aspects of the problem and to try to protect transboundary waters.

Carol Linnitt: It’s interesting to bring up the governance element of these problems. I’m thinking of another transboundary watershed shared between B.C. and Alaska up in the northwest. One of B.C.’s probably most infamous mines, the Tulsequah Chief, has for 60 years been leaching pollution into a river that flows directly into Alaska, a salmon-rich river.

“I look at salmon as this century’s version of bison from the 1800s.”

Rob Sisson: Last year we went on a fact-finding trip to Southeast Alaska and British Columbia because [people] in Alaska had contacted us and said, “Hey, you need to come look at this because we think this could be a big problem.”

We went up, we met with the State of Alaska, federal and local officials, NGOs and we went across and met with British Columbia and Canadian federal officials. We’ve met with mining company officials, too, to gather facts.

We don’t have a reference in the area but we used our alerting function to let the governments know that the Tulsequah Chief mine is leaching into the watershed. [The Mount Polley mine], which did not directly affect international waters or shared waters, is the example that I think a lot of people in Alaska are worried about with the bigger mines in British Columbia that would feed into the Taku, Unuk and Stikine rivers.

Grand Canyon of the Stikine River.

The ‘Grand Canyon’ of the Stikine River, near major mining projects in B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

I think people on both sides are talking about those laws and regulations to better protect the watersheds. I have faith that British Columbia and the Canadian federal government will continue to make progress in that.

For me, I look at salmon as this century’s version of bison from the 1800s. Now in the 1800s in the U.S., the U.S. government made the conscious decision to try to eliminate bison in order to basically control and stamp out Indigenous culture.

We are absolutely not making the conscious decision to try to impact salmon negatively but in my mind, standing by and not being proactive in pulling out all the stops to protect the really rich salmon rivers and waters could end up doing the same thing.

If one river system loses its stability to reproduce salmon we’re going to see entire Indigenous cultures disappear — Tlingit, Haida communities along those rivers and coastal areas. It’s something I’m very keenly aware of and spent a lot of time thinking about.

Hopefully, it will never rise to an IJC reference because the governments through regulation — whether that’s a carrot or stick — will resolve it before it becomes a problem.

Merrell-Ann Phare: If I could take this step out of my IJC hat for one moment and say, IJC certainly does not weigh in on domestic legislation and … whether it’s out of date and needs to be reformed or not.

As Rob said, what we can really do is alert to a problem and, if asked, to have a reference and do a study in that area and provide some recommendations. 

I would say that I know there are some Indigenous nations in that region who work with the mines that are in support of mining. There’s not 100 per cent consensus on what is the best path here and, to me, that’s the sign of the need for governance reform domestically. I think finding out how to build legislation or rely on Indigenous laws to better protect the salmon in accordance with what their worldviews are plus British Columbians — that’s the governance reform moment that is the reconciliation moment.

That’s the conversation I think that needs to be had. I would agree with Rob that from what we know and from our investigations, Canada and B.C. are talking at length about this on an ongoing basis. Like Rob, I really hope they are very successful in that but I think those conversations must also have to involve the Indigenous nations that are directly impacted as well at a governance level, sort of a government to government table, to try to truly resolve this issue.

This conversation has been edited for brevity.

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