Indigenous groups wary of Kootenay pollution pledge


Canada and the US say they hope to reach a tentative agreement by the summer to “mitigate and mitigate” the impact of toxic mining runoff in the filtered BC and Pacific Northwest. for many years into an important transboundary basin.

Any upcoming deal on pollution from BC’s Elk Valley will have partnerships with tribes and Indigenous Peoples from both countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden said the following Friday. meeting in Ottawa.

But they fail to address the biggest request from conservationists and indigenous leaders in both countries: a bilateral investigation by the International Joint Commission under the auspices of the United Nations. Boundary waters treaty of 1909.

Such an investigation, in treaty parlance known as a joint reference, requires both countries to agree. The United States has long pledged to support the idea, but Canada has been hesitant for years.

Indigenous leaders in the United States fear Friday’s announcement will set the stage for that reluctance to linger.

“Promises have been broken and deals have been made,” said Tom McDonald, president of the Union of Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana.

“The Canadian government has promised and broken it 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 United States will work toward “an agreement in principle this summer to reduce and mitigate the impact of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenay River Basin. .”

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 built alliances with Congress and the Biden administration to pressure Ottawa into a bipartisan effort to tackle the pollution.

Communities in BC, Washington state, Idaho and Montana have struggled for more than a decade with selenium and other toxins seeping into their watersheds from coal mining operations in the province’s Elk Valley.

“It’s confusing,” said Erin Sexton, a research scientist at the University of Montana who studies transboundary rivers between Canada and the United States, about Canada’s continued reluctance to agree to a common reference.

“It looks like the perfect solution, because it allows all governments to sit at the table in the process.”

The main miner in the region, Teck Resources, has spent more than $1.2 billion in efforts to fix the problem, with plans to spend an additional $750 million over the next two years.

The company’s strategy includes the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, which was developed with the help of Indigenous stakeholders, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Montana state government, the BC and Ottawa governments. .

Teck has described the plan as “one of the largest and most collaborative water quality management and monitoring programs in the world”, along with its water treatment and reduction efforts, which the company says have proven effective.

But indigenous leaders say selenium levels in the country are still too high.

The goal for many years was for a proper bilateral investigation to be assembled and overseen by the Joint International Commission, the body that exists to mediate disputes and enforce the provisions of the Waters Treaty. Bilateral boundary.

Canada’s opposition to the reference prompted a bilateral delegation of Indigenous leaders and experts from the Pacific Northwest to return to DC in December for a meeting on Capitol Hill.

They met with Democratic and Republican lawmakers from Alaska, Washington and Montana, as well as officials from the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Next week, some of them are expected to return to the US capital to re-present their case to lawmakers in Congress and Biden administration officials.

McDonald calls the fact that both sides agree that meaningful action is long gone, but the Salish and Kootenai Tribes remain wary of the fact that they are not referring to a joint commission action.

Tribal council member Mike Dolson called on the US to “go all out” to convince Canada to agree to a common reference.

“Selenium pollution should be a top priority for the United States, not only because the U.S. government is obligated to respect our tribal sovereignty, but also 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 the reference to investigating the transboundary impact of mining operations. Canadian mining in the region.

While much of the mining activity in the area is relatively old – coal, gold, silver and copper – conservationists also fear a new mining frenzy in North America, which seeks to find precious, climate-friendly key minerals that now fuel life in the 21st century.

“They’re in joint negotiations to supply vital minerals, and at the same time, deposits in Canada’s watersheds are flowing downstream into U.S. waters,” Sexton said.

“So for me, it’s really important that our two countries have an edge in terms of environmental regulation of mines and common waters.”

On Friday, Biden and Trudeau also announced a new bilateral commitment to build “strong, environmentally responsible and resilient” supply chains for key minerals across North America.

“We are committed to identifying, securing and developing significant mineral extraction, processing, production and recycling opportunities in both countries,” the statement said.

They claim to meet “environmental robustness, sustainability, workers, health and safety, indigenous and tribal consultation and cooperation, as well as standards of participation by community.”

They also promised progress on a modern treaty for the Columbia River Basin, a transboundary basin that combines much of the Kootenay and Elk Rivers, extending into northern Nevada and northwestern Wyoming.

Those talks, which have been going on since 2018 and include a recent session in DC just this week, focus on new rules for flood risk management, power generation and benefit sharing. environment.

“The Columbia River is an important common resource that underpins many lives and industries on both sides of the border,” the two leaders said. “Watershed requires our quick attention and coordination.”

In an interview earlier this week, Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the US, said both the Columbia River Treaty negotiations and efforts to tackle pollution from the Elk Valley were making progress.

It’s important that things continue to move in that direction, she said.

“The measures that are being taken and the investments that have been made to address the situation are starting to take effect, which is really important,” Hillman said.

“We need to keep an eye on those and to make sure that whatever dialogue we are engaged in with Americans and other stakeholders in Canada…will continue to lead us in that direction and not create an atmosphere that is contrary to that purpose. “

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Friday, March 24, 2023.

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