Eight senators urge British Columbia Premier to acknowledge the impacts of mining on U.S./Canadian rivers.
Washington, D.C. — In an unprecedented and bipartisan effort, all eight U.S. senators from the four U.S. states bordering B.C. — Alaska, Montana, Washington and Idaho — are urging British Columbia Premier John Horgan to recognize that contamination from upstream B.C. mining in shared U.S./Canada rivers threatens American businesses, citizens and resources.
The letter from Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Patty Murray (D-WA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), James Risch (R-ID), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Steve Daines (R-MT) elevates downstream U.S. concerns and highlights the need to improve B.C.’s mining sector safeguards. The letter also references the need for binding international protections to match B.C.’s mining laws with those in the U.S.
For decades, B.C.’s large-scale, open-pit hard rock and coal mines have polluted rivers that flow from B.C., fouling U.S. waters with acid mine drainage and other contaminants. In the Elk/Kootenai watersheds, shared by Idaho, Montana and B.C., selenium from Teck Resources’ coal mines has killed and deformed fish and threatens native trout and Kootenai River white sturgeon. In Alaska, acid mine drainage from B.C.’s Tulsequah Chief mine into the transboundary Taku River, one of the region’s most productive for salmon, has continued for more than 60 years. Compounding threats, B.C. is rapidly approving new mines and expanding existing mines in the lands around all four surrounding states’ rivers. Most recently, British Columbia opened a permit process for a controversial new mine in the headwaters of the Skagit River, which flows into Washington state through North Cascades National Park, and into the Puget Sound.
“We’re fortunate to have Senators who know the value of partnering across borders to protect our shared waterways, as well as the importance of holding our neighbors accountable,” said Michael Jamison, Crown of the Continent Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Mining in B.C. headwaters pollutes the rivers that flow between our countries, and already has poisoned fish and wildlife in the Crown of the Continent, home to Glacier National Park. This is an international crisis unfolding across an entire ecosystem, and resolving it will require an international solution employed on a similarly large scale.”
Current B.C. regulations do not require a cumulative analysis of mining impacts to these shared rivers, though the land around them, in at least one instance, is more than 50 percent covered by mining claims and leases. Furthermore, current regulations do not require consent from First Nations, private property owners, or allow for meaningful public input by U.S. stakeholders and tribal citizens.
The senators’ letter is the latest action aimed at cleaning up B.C.’s mining operations in transboundary rivers. Such calls have been echoed by members of the U.S. House, the gubernatorial administrations of Washington, Montana and Alaska, tribes and First Nations on every border, state legislators, municipalities, fishermen, businesses, B.C. residents and tens of thousands of U.S. residents.
Earlier this year, U.S. federal lawmakers allocated $1.8 million to monitor water quality in these four states’ transboundary rivers.
Other recent actions include:
- A human rights petition filed by 15 of Southeast Alaska’s 19 federally recognized tribes;
- Letters of complaint regarding exclusion from the decision-making process filed by indigenous leadership in Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana and B.C.;
- Joint state-federal letters of concern and a formal complaint by U.S. federal water negotiators that their Canadian counterparts were refusing to acknowledge best available science in B.C.’s shared transboundary rivers;
- The B.C./AK transboundary Stikine River recently was named to American Rivers’ “most endangered” list due to transboundary mining (a distinction shared in recent years by the B.C./MT Kootenai River.)
Even residents of B.C. mining towns have grown alarmed by the extent of air and water pollution, and in May, thirty British Columbian NGOs launched their own campaign to reform B.C.’s mining regulations.
“We know we have a tremendous problem with contamination flowing from B.C.’s mining sector,” said Robyn Allan, former President and CEO of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. “B.C.’s own auditor general has chided the province for our lax rules and lack of enforcement. We absolutely need to ensure British Columbia’s taxpayers don’t end up paying for industry shortfalls and to bring British Columbia’s mining practices into the 21st century, both for Canadians and for the U.S. citizens living downstream.”
In May, tribal leaders in Washington state expressed their “grave concerns” regarding B.C.’s plans to allow Imperial Metals to mine the headwaters of the Skagit River, the most important salmon river in Seattle’s Puget Sound area. They warned of “the potential for disastrous results,” and noted that just five years ago a mine failure by the same company released millions of gallons of toxic copper and gold tailings into B.C. lakes, drinking water and salmon runs.
“The Skagit River is critical to the survival of salmon and orca,” said Scott Schuyler, policy expert for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “It’s the lifeblood that connects the ocean with the mountain interior, and any thought of mining its headwaters only proves how out of touch British Columbia’s regulators are.”
“For decades, Canadian mining has contaminated downstream waters in U.S. states. Now, the province is looking to industrialize the headwaters of the Skagit River, threatening North Cascades National Park as well as orcas, salmon and people downstream here in Seattle,” said Rob Smith, Northwest Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “It’s past time that British Columbia take responsibility for its contamination of our waters and our communities, by reforming mining practices in transboundary watersheds and respecting the international nature of these shared resources.”
Similar concerns are echoed by members of Alaska’s commercial fishing industry, who are asking for federal intervention to hold B.C.’s mining regulators accountable.
“This is a multi-state, international problem for which we need a multi-state, international solution,” said United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach. “Right now B.C.’s massive open-pit mines and waste dumps put some of Alaska and B.C.’s most important salmon rivers, and the fishing jobs that rely on them, at risk. Alaska fishermen and the thousands of people across the world who enjoy wild salmon expect and deserve better from B.C. regulators.”
Montana fishing guides agree.
“The United States is not a settling pond for Teck Resources and the rest of Canada’s mining industry,” said former Kootenai River fishing guide Mike Rooney. “It’s our hope that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Premier John Horgan act to protect our businesses, resources and itizens by requesting intervention under the Boundary Waters Treaty. Anything less is not the solution this international problem deserves.”
In Idaho, where millions of dollars have been spent recovering endangered sturgeon in transboundary rivers, the upstream threat is particularly alarming.
“We commend our Congressional leaders for taking steps towards a long-term solution that will benefit our waterways on both sides of the border,” said Matthew Nykiel, conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League. “A letter like this is a powerful message to British Columbia, and it shows that we are stronger together. Mining in the B.C. headwaters of transboundary rivers is a problem we all share, and it will require an international response to solve it.“
Salmon Beyond Borders Director Jill Weitz summed up what is at stake.
"Today, every single border-state senator joined with commercial and sport fishermen, business owners, communities, tribes, and tens of thousands of Americans to highlight for Premier John Horgan the serious issue of B.C.’s transboundary mining contamination.
"U.S. taxpayers have spent billions of dollars restoring these rivers and fisheries. It would be a tragedy to have that investment undone by B.C. mining contamination. And until B.C. enacts adequate financial assurance requirements, U.S. taxpayers will remain on the hook for all future damage to U.S. resources by B.C.’s mining sector.
"It’s our hope that Premier Horgan will prioritize wild salmon and the health and wealth of B.C. citizens, and protect taxpayers in both countries, by acting on the senators’ requests for enforceable standards, water quality monitoring, and international safeguards for international rivers.”
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