Elk Valley coal mines, credit: Garth Lenz, ILCP.

US senators press Horgan to clean up BC mine water

Late last week, the East Kootenay based environmental group, Wildsight, put out a press release saying eight U.S. senators from states neighbouring British Columbia are trying to press Premier John Horgan to clean up mine water pollution flowing across the border, primarily from Elk Valley coal mines.

The weakness of B.C.’s mining and related environmental laws were highlighted by the senators in their efforts to protect shared rivers from long-term water pollution from mines in B.C., the release says.

“B.C.’s archaic mining laws are still rooted in a wild west mentality,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. “B.C. law makes it far too easy for mines to extract resources now, while leaving the clean-up to future generations and that puts rivers across the province, including many that flow into the US, at risk of long-term ecological disaster.”

Key issues highlighted by the senators include the lack of transparent, open data collection on water pollution and its impacts, the lack of binding water pollution limits, and B.C.’s unwillingness to fully address water pollution issues collaboratively. The senators’ letter is just the latest US action asking B.C. to clean up mining pollution in shared rivers. Such calls have been echoed by tribes and First Nations on every border, members of the U.S. House, the governors of Washington, Montana and Alaska, state legislators, municipalities, and others. Earlier this year, reacting to the lack of open data, U.S. federal lawmakers allocated US $1.8 million to monitor water quality in these four states’ transboundary rivers.

“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.”

After nearly four years, a B.C.-Montana process to set a shared pollution limit for Lake Koocanusa still hasn’t come to an agreement, while selenium levels have risen above both B.C. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s thresholds to protect fish from the reproduction disrupting effects.

“While the U.S. Endangered Species Act should protect bull trout in Lake Koocanusa and the rare white sturgeon downstream, because B.C. still doesn’t have any endangered species legislation, fish and other wildlife don’t have comparable protection here in B.C.” said Lars Sander-Green of Wildsight. “Endangered species legislation was an election promise from the NDP, but we’re still waiting.”

The US senators also highlight that these water pollution issues haven’t been dealt with through the long-standing Boundary Waters Treaty, which prohibits pollution of shared rivers. While delays in appointing commissioners to the International Joint Commission, set up to resolve disputes under the Treaty, have recently left the body unable to take action, appointments made in May 2019 now allow the Commission to continue their work.

“One big problem we have in B.C. is a very weak bonding system to make sure mines pay for clean up” said Sander-Green. “The amounts that mining companies have to provide in bonds are often wildly insufficient to deal with long-term water pollution problems—and that puts everything downstream at risk, on both sides of the border.”

Contacted for a response, the B.C. Ministry of Environment replied with the following information:

• Our government has received a letter on June 13th from 8 US Senators expressing concerns regarding U.S. – B.C. transboundary watersheds.

• We take the protection and preservation of our environment very seriously.

• That’s why we launched CleanBC, our climate plan to put our province on the path to a cleaner, better future with a low carbon economy that creates opportunities for all while protecting our clean, air, land and water. CleanBC makes us a leader in North American when it comes to clean energy plans.

• The relationship we have with our US counterparts goes beyond a shared border. We have shared interests, ideals, goals and a shared environment.

• The Province has developed a number of mechanisms to engage with our neighbouring jurisdictions including our Memorandum of Understanding with Alaska, our Transboundary Monitoring Task Group with Montana, and our Integrated Environmental Monitoring Program with Washington. We are committed to working closely with our transboundary neighbours to protect and enhance our shared environment and waterways.

• The MOU between British Columbia and Alaska recognizes and formalizes the mutual commitment to protect and enhance the shared environment, including trans-boundary rivers, watersheds and fisheries, for the benefit of both jurisdictions.

• The Statement of Cooperation on the Protection of Transboundary Waters (SoC) agreement between B.C. and Alaska establishes a bilateral working group, consisting of the commissioners of the Alaska Departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game and Natural Resources and the deputy ministers of the British Columbia Ministries of Energy and Mines and Environment who will:

• Establish and oversee a Technical Working Group on water monitoring that will identify a reliable and accurate process for the collection, summary and distribution of baseline, regional and project-specific water quality data.

• Look for opportunities to build on and enhance participation in Environmental Assessments and Permitting relating to mines and development.

• Identify and share reports on mine discharges, operations and closure.

• The SOC is being implemented as planned. The Government of B.C. is working closely with the State of Alaska on mining proposals. Alaska is very much involved in the assessment and permitting of existing and proposed mines in the transboundary watersheds – Red Chris, Brucejack, Red Mountain.

• The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources recently announced an additional $20 million investment over the next three years to facilitate the implementation of the Mines Competitiveness and Authorizations Division, making it completely independent of Mines Health, Safety and Enforcement Division within EMPR. This ensures clear separation that aligns with other provincial regulators including the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

• The Mines Health, Safety and Enforcement Division will include a greater number of mines inspectors and a new auditing function to increase industry safety. The division’s priorities will be focused on increased health, safety, compliance management and enforcement activities. A new compliance auditing and effectiveness monitoring team within the division will function as an independent oversight unit.

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