PABLO - Large-scale coal mining taking place in Canada is impacting people, wildlife, and nature in Montana.
“We need to scream this out to everybody because it's impacting U.S. waters; it’s a treaty violation for us as Native people," Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Tribal Chairman Tim McDonald tells MTN News.
The Boundary Waters Treaty was signed by the United States and Canada in 1909, establishing the International Joint Commission to help the two countries settle disputes over the waters they share.
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Article IV of the treaty states “waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.”
Mining has been happening in British Columbia's Elk Valley since 1898 and in the 1970s, open-pit coal mines were made by blowing up mountain peaks which sent chemicals into the air and water.
The mines are continuing to leak selenium and other chemicals into the Elk River which runs into Lake Koocanusa in Northwest Montana which scientists say is already over the accepted level of selenium.
“And the Elk River flows into the Kootenai(y) river and then into Lake Koocanusa here in Northwest Montana and then downstream into the Kootenai River in Idaho and then actually back into Canada,” explained biologist Erin Sexton.
Sexton has stood in the river and collected water samples. She has also flown over the mines and has seen the dark black scars they leave in the landscape.
“We already have toxic levels of selenium in fish in Lake Koocanusa and in the Kootenai River downstream,” Sexton said.
Selenium bioaccumulates or magnifies from one link in the food chain to the next by acting on reproductive organs in fish, causing eggs to not hatch, which dwindles populations of culturally and nutritionally important fish.
“When you end up having to stop something that’s been going on for a millennia like harvesting bull trout or westslope cutthroat trout or burbot or having the relationship with, with sturgeon as we have um that, that is a severing from your cultural identity," McDonald said.
The mining companies in British Columbia are looking to expand which has prompted CSKT officials to urge Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to step in and act as a protector of the environment and Indigenous peoples and allow the International Joint Commission to come to a decision on the issue.
“What we’re asking for is the nation to come forward, the Canadian nation, to come forward and implement what’s right. Comply with our treaty, our Boundary Waters Treaty, because that’s what it’s there for and do the right thing,” McDonald says.
President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau met on this issue recently and said they expect to come to a resolution by this summer. The CSKT hopes that it is one that includes Indigenous perspectives thereby protecting their lands and livelihoods.