WASHINGTON — Canada and the U.S. say they hope to reach a tentative deal by summer to "reduce and mitigate" the impact of toxic mining runoff in B.C. and the Pacific Northwest that has been leaching for years into a vital cross-border watershed.
Any forthcoming agreement on pollution from B.C.'s Elk Valley would be in partnership with tribes and Indigenous Peoples from both countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden said Friday after meeting in Ottawa.
But they made no mention of the biggest demand from conservationists and Indigenous leaders in both countries: a bilateral investigation by the International Joint Commission under the auspices of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
Such an investigation, known in treaty parlance as a joint reference, requires both countries to agree. The U.S. has long pledged its support for the idea, but Canada has been dragging its heels for years.
Indigenous leaders in the U.S. fear Friday's announcement sets the stage for that reluctance to persist.
"Promises have been broken and deals have been made," said Tom McDonald, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana.
"Promises have been made by the Canadian government and then broken before. This is the perfect time for Prime Minister Trudeau to take a strong stand for the environment and for the people."
In a joint statement, Biden and Trudeau said Canada and the U.S. would work toward "an agreement in principle by this summer to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenay watershed."
Such an agreement would aim to "protect the people and species that depend on this vital river system."
Indigenous groups from both sides of the border have for months been building an alliance with Congress and the Biden administration to pressure Ottawa into a bipartisan effort to deal with the pollution.
Communities in B.C., Washington state, Idaho and Montana have been contending for more than a decade with selenium and other toxins leaching into their watershed from coal mining operations in the province's Elk Valley.
"It's confounding," said Erin Sexton, a University of Montana research scientist who specializes in Canada-U.S. transboundary rivers, of Canada's ongoing reluctance to agree to a joint reference.
"It's like the perfect solution, because it allows for all governments to be seated at the table in the process."
The principal mining player in the region, Teck Resources, has already spent more than $1.2 billion in an effort to fix the problem, with plans for $750 million more over the next two years.
The company's strategy includes the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, developed with help from Indigenous stakeholders, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state government in Montana, the B.C. government and Ottawa.
Teck has described the plan as "among the largest and most collaborative water quality management and monitoring programs in the world," alongside water treatment and mitigation efforts the company says have already proven effective.
But Indigenous leaders say selenium levels in the water are still too high.
The goal for years has been a proper bilateral investigation that would be assembled and overseen by the International Joint Commission, which exists to mediate disputes and enforce the terms of the bilateral Boundary Waters Treaty.
Canada's resistance to a reference prompted a bilateral delegation of Indigenous leaders and experts from the Pacific Northwest to travel to D.C. back in December for meetings on Capitol Hill.
They met with Democrat and Republican lawmakers from Alaska, Washington and Montana, as well as officials from the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Next week, several of them are expected back in the U.S. capital to press their case once again with lawmakers in Congress and Biden administration officials.
McDonald called it "encouraging" that both sides agree it's long past time for meaningful action, but the Salish and Kootenai Tribes remain wary of the fact they made no mention of a joint commission action.
Tribal council member Mike Dolson urged the U.S. to "throw its full weight" behind convincing Canada to agree to a joint reference.
"Selenium contamination should be a top priority for the United States, not only because the U.S. government has an obligation to honor our tribal sovereignty, but because these toxic pollutants threaten the health and safety of all communities across Montana, Idaho and British Columbia."
Last summer, following similar meetings with several U.S. tribes, the State Department reaffirmed its own support for a reference to investigate the transboundary impact of Canadian mining in the region.
While the bulk of the mining activity in the region is relatively old-school — coal, gold, silver and copper — conservationists also fear a looming new North American extraction frenzy, this one in search of the precious, climate-friendly critical minerals that now fuel life in the 21st century.
"They're working on joint negotiations to supply critical minerals, and at the same time, mines that are sourced in Canadian watersheds are leaching downstream into U.S. waters," Sexton said.
"So to me, it's really important that our two countries have their ducks in a row when it comes to environmental regulation of mines and shared waters."
On Friday, Biden and Trudeau also announced a fresh bilateral commitment to building a "strong, environmentally responsible and resilient" supply chain for critical minerals across North America.
"We are committed to identifying, securing, and developing critical minerals extraction, processing, manufacturing, and recycling opportunities in both countries," the statement said.
They vowed to meet "strong environmental, sustainability, worker, health and safety, Indigenous and tribal consultation and partnership, and community engagement standards."
They also promised progress on a modern treaty for the Columbia River basin, a trans-boundary watershed that incorporates much of the Kootenay and Elk River basins, extending to northern Nevada and northwestern Wyoming.
Those talks, which have been ongoing since 2018 and included a recent session in D.C. just this week, are focused on new rules for flood risk management, power generation and shared environmental benefits.
"The Columbia River is a vital shared resource that underpins many lives and industries on both sides of the border," the two leaders said. "The watershed requires our attention and prompt co-ordination."
In an interview earlier this week, Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., said both the Columbia River Treaty talks and the efforts to address pollution from Elk Valley are making progress.
It's important, she said, that things continue to move in that direction.
"The measures that are being taken, and the investments that have been made to deal with the situation, are starting to have effect, which is really important," Hillman said.
"We need to be monitoring those, and to make sure that whatever dialogue we're in with the Americans and other stakeholders in Canada ... keeps moving us in that direction and doesn't create an atmosphere that is contrary to that purpose."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Friday, March 24, 2023.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press