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Tribes call for Canada to address mining's impacts

by EMILY BONSANT
Hagadone News Network | April 27, 2023 1:00 AM

BONNERS FERRY — The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho has joined a group of First Nations and Tribes in calling on Canadian officials to address the impact of industrial mining on waterways in historic tribal lands.

On April 24, more than 10 First Nations and Tribes called on Canadian officials to address the issue and condemned the governments of Canada and B.C. for “allowing the mining industry to lay waste to Indigenous territory.” They demanded Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Columbia Premier David Eby honor their “legal and ethical obligation to protect transboundary waters and communities they sustain.”

In Boundary County, Kootenai Tribe officials said testing is showing increased selenium levels in the Kootenai River with data pointing to mining in British Columbia as the cause.

In March and April, Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative meetings, Shawn Young, Fish & Wildlife Department director with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, presented on selenium levels in the Kootenai River — and how it is affecting the white sturgeon and burbot populations.

Over the past 30 years, the Kootenai Tribe has worked to bring back the endangered white sturgeon and burbot to the Kootenai River. Data collected shows that the fish are being exposed to high levels of selenium, which attacks the fish’s livers and can cause genetic disorders in fish populations, Young said. While harmful to fish, selenium is not dangerous to humans.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said selenium is a nutritionally essential element for animals in small amounts, but toxic at higher concentrations.

Selenium bioaccumulates in the aquatic food chain and chronic exposure in fish and aquatic invertebrates can cause reproductive impairments, larval deformity or mortality, EPA officials said. Additionally, selenium can also adversely affect juvenile growth and mortality.

It also has an effect on species further down the food chain and is toxic to waterfowl and other birds that consume aquatic organisms containing excessive levels of selenium, EPA said on its website.

Water chemistry tests taken from the Elk River at the Highway 93 bridge site show that selenium micrograms per liter has increased since 1986 from under 2 ug/L, British Columbia’s guideline, to upward of 7 ug/L in 2020. Measurements at the same location also show nitrogen levels have been increasing steadily every year since 1986, measuring 0.6 to 1.6 milligrams per liter in 2016.

Young said the burbot population in the Kootenai River is showing an increase in selenium levels which exceed the protective levels recommended by the EPA. He added that data shows that the selenium concentration correlates to the release site habitat types.

“Burbot related to [Kootenai] river and wetlands habitats have higher selenium than those released in the Kootenay Lake,” he said.

Young said that hinders efforts to protect and revive the white sturgeon and burbot populations, especially since hatchery-raised fish have a lower survival rate and it can take years for burbot to be sexually mature and a decade for white sturgeon.

Data by KTOI shows that as larvae the fish only have a 1% survival rate in the wild. As they age in the wild, their survival rate increases.

There are three more proposed mines in the Elk River Valley, located in the Rocky Mountains between British Columbia and Alberta, just across the border from Eureka, Mont.

“While Canada and British Columbia stonewall efforts by First Nations, Tribes and the United States to address pollution, B.C. mining continues to leach toxic pollutants into our transboundary waters,” said Vice Chairman Gary Aitken Jr. of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. “We are monitoring the death of our river systems, while those in power have corrupt relationships with the mining industry and refuse to stand up to pollution. It’s like watching a loved one die, knowing that they could be saved.”

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho has joined with First Nations and tribal leaders from across Idaho, Montana, Washington and Alaska as well as British Columbia in calling for immediate action. The tribes and First Nations are calling for an international commission to address pollution concerns and British Columbia officials’ resistance regarding liability on the impact on their traditional territories and way of life.

They said they are standing together “calling on Canada and British Columbia to prioritize people over profit.”

“Canada has failed to properly regulate pollution from coal mines for too long, and their proposed new Coal Mining Effluent Regulations are not enough to reverse the harm to our water,” said Ktunaxa Nation Chair Kathryn Teneese. “We need more than a soft commitment to agree to a solution in principle. The Kootenay River deserves, and the Ktunaxa people expect, clear federal action from the Canada-U.S. bilateral negotiations.”

On April 19, 2023, The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho along with 10 other Aboriginal First Nations and Indigenous Tribes of Canada and the United States, wrote Trudeau and Eby requesting that Canadian and British Columbia governments take action.

“Canada and British Columbia can no longer stand in the way of the Indigenous-led call for an international response to the past damage and increasing threats posed by British Columbia mines. Through the steps specified above, we can finally implement effective plans to prevent further environmental degradation and allow the waters of all our nations to heal,” leaders of the tribes wrote.