Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Tribes: Watershed pollution must be addressed

Hagadone News Network | November 5, 2023 1:00 AM

The Ktunaxa Nation and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho are calling on the U.S. and Canada to immediately address pollution in the Kootenai Watershed.

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho officials said data shows that upriver British Columbia Canadian mining runoff from the Elk River Valley is contaminating the Kootenai River and its watershed with selenium and threatening the endangered fish populations the Tribe has worked for decades to recover.

For the past 30 years, KTOI has worked to bring back the endangered white sturgeon and burbot to the Kootenai River, the very river they have fished before time immemorial. 

Data collected below the Libby Dam indicates fish are being exposed to high levels of selenium, which attacks the fishes' livers and can cause genetic disorders in fish populations, Shawn Young, Fish & Wildlife Department director with the KTOI, said at an April Kootenai River Valley Initiative meeting. 

Selenium is not dangerous to humans, but it can be toxic at higher concentrations, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said. Selenium bioaccumulates in the aquatic food chain and chronic exposure can cause reproductive impairments, larval deformity or mortality, EPA officials said. Additionally, selenium can also adversely affect juvenile growth and mortality.

Young said the burbot population in the Kootenai River is showing increased selenium levels which exceed the protective levels recommended by the EPA. 

On April 24, 2023, more than 10 First Nations and Tribes called on Canadian officials to address the issue and condemned the Canadian and British Columbian governments 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.”

“The United States and Canada have failed to meet their summer deadline to reach an agreement in partnership with the Ktunaxa on how to address pollution in the Elk and Kootenai rivers, demonstrating the federal governments’ continued lack of commitment to address this serious pollution problem,” the Ktunaxa Nation wrote in a press release. 

Ktunaxa leadership have been urging Canada and the U.S. to address water quality pollution in Ktunaxa homelands for over a decade.

In March of this year, Trudeau and President Joe Biden publicly committed to “reach an agreement in principle by this summer to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watershed in partnership with Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples, in order to protect the people and species that depend on this vital river system.” 

Summer has passed and no agreement has been made despite numerous opportunities for all eight governments to meet, such as the federal bilateral meeting in April, the Upper Columbia United Tribes transboundary mining conference in September and the federal bilateral meeting that took place in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, in early October. 

Ktunaxa officials said they were initially encouraged by the pair’s commitment, which acknowledged the need for a solution — developed and implemented in partnership with the Ktunaxa — for the Elk-Kootenai watershed.  

“Yet this initial encouragement faltered as engagement with the federal governments — particularly Canada — following the statement’s release was nearly nonexistent, and a far cry from a “partnership,” officials wrote. “The lack of engagement and collaboration led Ktunaxa leadership to convene in June to pen their own solution, which was sent to federal governments in mid-July.”

The “two-pronged approach” is based on  the need for an International Joint Commission watershed board to conduct an independent and scientific assessment of pollution in the watershed and perform ongoing monitoring. In addition, it calls for the parallel need for a governance plan that guarantees both federal governments and all six Ktunaxa governments an equal seat at the table to immediately implement solutions, restore the waters, and ensure effective regulation and management of the watershed going forward. 

The Ktunaxa proposal aims to bridge the draft IJC reference put forward by the U.S. and the call for a governance table from Canada.

Yet, despite the fact that Canada has had proposals for an IJC reference from the Ktunaxa Nation, the U.S., and even in British Columbia since mid-July, Ktunaxa did not receive even an acknowledgment of the proposal from Canada until Sept. 21 — the day before the deadline, officials wrote. 

“With B.C. on board, we now have all crucial governments in support of an IJC reference, except for Canada. We simply can’t understand what is holding Canada back and keeping them from honoring their promises to Indigenous peoples, the environment and the International Boundary Waters Treaty,” said Tom McDonald, Chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Remarks made at a conference at the end of September by a Global Affairs Canada representative that “Canada knows that they are late with their homework” have spurred Ktunaxa Leadership to initiate a government-to-government-to-government meeting to be set in November.

“There has not been a single multi-government meeting to discuss solutions,” said Ktunaxa Nation Chair Kathryn Teneese.

While the United States has met regularly with the staff of the full transboundary Ktunaxa Nation, Canada has not done the same. Tribe officials also noted there haven’t been any meetings between the U.S., Canada and the Ktunaxa Nation all together, despite repeated requests and numerous opportunities. 

The Ktunaxa Nation invites Canada and the United States to immediately make good on their promise and meet with the six Ktunaxa governments, which includes the KTOI. The tribes are initiating a meeting in the coming weeks. 

“We must come to a solution before the end of the year — we were strung along in 2022, and then again in 2023 with a target of the end of summer,” said Kootenai Tribe of Idaho Vice-Chairman Gary Aitken Jr. “The governments need to show that their deadlines, and their intent to meet them, are meaningful. We cannot accept any more broken promises. We have been asking for action on this issue for more than a decade, and we can’t wait any longer.” 

“We thought the commitment to work in partnership with the Ktunaxa Nation meant that all eight governments would sit down together to reach an agreement, but nothing could be further from the truth. Since the U.S. and Canada are not able to set up a process for reaching agreement, the Nation has no choice but to set one up so that we can actually address the devastating pollution in the Kootenai watershed,” he said.