Canadian Mine Waste Is Crossing Borders and Facing International Backlash

For decades, Canadian waterways have carried toxic mine waste through natural ecosystems, into tribal lands and across the U.S. border. A coalition of indigenous leaders and scientists are now calling for international protection.

By Stephen Robert MillerFeb 5, 2022 12:00 PM
(Credit: Garth Lenz)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

This story was originally published in our March/April 2022 issue. Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.

In the bitter cold winter of 2017, British Columbia’s minister of energy and mines discovered that someone had staked a mining claim in his actual backyard. The request had come without notice or warning. If approved, it would allow the people behind it to pan for precious minerals in streambeds on his Cranbrook, B.C., property, less than 50 miles north of the U.S. border.

The abandoned Tulsequah Chief ore mine in northwestern British Columbian operated for less than 10 years before closing in 1957. More than 60 years later, it still leaks toxicants into the Taku River watershed, which flows into southern Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. (Credit: Chris Miller)

“The claim is not going to pay off for them,” then-Minister Bill Bennet told The Province at the time; his home sits high and dry on a forested hill with no streams to explore. But the people behind the permit weren’t looking to strike a claim. They were a group of First Nations women led by Bev Sellars, a former chief of the Xat’sull First Nation, who had purchased the mining claim from the comfort of her home hundreds of miles away, for $129.89 Canadian ($105 USD). Rather than looking to get rich, Sellars wanted to make a point: In B.C., mining permits are too easy to come by, regulations are too weak and the effects are felt well beyond their source.

“Anybody in the world can stake a claim in B.C., as long as they have the internet and a credit card,” she says.

Bev Sellars, former chief of the Xat’sull First Nation, with her husband, Hereditary Chief Bill Wilson.(Credit: Courtesy of Bev Sellars)

In recent years, that lax oversight has fostered a simmering sense of unease among people living around some of the province’s many abandoned and operating mines, and the feeling has not been restricted to Canada. There are at least a dozen mining projects along nine rivers that drain out of B.C. and into four U.S. states. From fissures in the Canadian Rockies, these waterways can carry the residues of mineral extraction on a circuitous, international route. They impact First Nations land and U.S. states, fishing communities and vulnerable ecosystems. Downstream of some mines, fish populations have crashed and water-quality studies have shown levels of contamination up to 85 times what biologists consider safe for aquatic life. In the U.S., this would raise alarms and warrant hefty fines, but B.C.’s mining companies are not beholden to the EPA.

Now the province is poised to permit three of the largest mining operations in North America, including one along a waterway that begins near Cranbrook, ends just north of Portland, Oregon, and already shows signs of mining contamination. In response, Indigenous groups have emerged as a driving force behind a movement of residents, scientists and U.S. lawmakers who are clamoring for a higher level of protection for these shared waters.

Mineral-Rich Waters

The Kootenai River (or, north of the Canada border, “Kootenay River”) begins in a glacial cirque one ridgeline over from the famously turquoise waters of Lake Louise in Banff National Park. It then flows south into Montana, swelling to become Lake Koocanusa at the B.C.-Montana border, bending like a fishhook into the Idaho panhandle and finally returning to B.C., where it joins the Columbia River. Like other rivers of the Pacific Northwest, the Kootenai once ran thick with ocean-going salmon and steelhead — that is, until dams started impounding upstream populations in the early 1900s. There are still some Kokanee, a landlocked version of sockeye salmon, and white sturgeon, an ancient fish listed as endangered in both countries. 

(Credit: Jay Smith)

The first people to settle in the Kootenai Valley likely arrived some 10,000 years ago. These ancestors of the Ktunaxa Nation were seminomadic, slept in teepees, wove pine bark baskets, spoke a language unlike any other and depended on the river that takes their name. Today, they are represented in the bands of the Ktunaxa First Nation in B.C. to the north, as well as the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) in Montana. The Kootenai River still anchors them all.

“We’re not a major casino tribe, that’s not our bread and butter,” says Rich Janssen, head of the Department of Natural Resources for the CSKT in Montana. “What is our bread and butter is our resources.”

From their reservation on the south bank of Flathead Lake, the CSKT have made themselves a bulwark against environmental degradation in their ancestral territory. They have built a sound forestry department to manage their vast timber stands and have established herds of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and elk that now migrate into Idaho. They reintroduced the seemingly lost trumpeter swan and reclaimed the National Bison Range, which has grown to include more than 400 animals.

(Credit: Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock)

Miners first wandered onto Ktunaxa lands in the 1850s on the heels of the great gold rushes that set the tone for modern-day Canada. These early prospectors tapped into stone and made camp with little regard for Indigenous inhabitants or the local environment. “They described it like the land of milk and honey, but they saw it in terms of how much money they could make. This is not a new story,” Sellars says.

By the 1960s, fully mature mining corporations began carving the first large-scale mines along the Elk River, a tributary that joins the Kootenai just north of Lake Koocanusa in B.C. Today, four active open-pit operations (plus a closed mine) sprawl across the Elk Valley, producing about 21 million tons of coal each year. Teck Resources Ltd., which owns them all, is one of the largest hard-rock-mining companies in B.C. — and all of Canada.

Mines in B.C. produce more copper and coal (for steelmaking) than any other Canadian province, plus tons of silver and all the country’s molybdenum, a silvery metal used for making steel and lubricants. In 2017, the mining industry there generated $11.7 billion Canadian ($9.3 billion USD) and directly employed more than 10,000 people, according to the Mining Association of British Columbia. The industry’s economic benefits have helped locals — including many Indigenous employees — but these gains have come with a cost, both local and far afield.

In the early 2000s, proposals to develop mineral deposits upstream of lakes Koocanusa and Flathead loomed over the CSKT’s hard-won environmental accomplishments, and the tribes sought to weigh in on the permitting process. “We’re not against all mining. We’re against the mining that pollutes our natural resources in our Aboriginal territories,” Janssen says. “We’re looked at as leaders in Indian Country; we don’t sit back idly and wait for something to happen.”

Garth Lenz has spent 25 years photographing the impact of industrial sites on natural landscapes, such as this tailings pond at Red Chris mine in northwest B.C. See more of his work at www.garthlenz.com. (Credit: Garth Lenz)

South of the Border

In 2013, the Ministry of Mines granted Teck permission to expand its Line Creek mine in the Elk Valley, advancing a goal of opening eight new mines and expanding nine others by 2015. Even then, though, studies showed levels of contamination downstream of mines in the Elk River that were significantly higher than what occurs naturally.

“From a science and data perspective, none of those mines should even be considered right now,” says Erin Sexton, a biologist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station in Montana who works on behalf of the CSKT. Knowing that any substantive case against upstream development would have to be rooted in a scientific understanding of the impacts, the confederation set about collecting its own data. Armed with that information, the tribes can establish a baseline for water quality in the Kootenai and set their own limits, or standards, that they hope B.C. will honor under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.

Erin Sexton collects water samples from the Elk River, where contaminants have been traced 60-plus miles downstream of mines in the Columbia River Basin. (Credit: Courtesy of Erin Sexton)

Sexton, who has worked along the Flathead for 14 years, began by comparing two rivers: the heavily mined Elk and the so-far unmined Flathead, just one watershed to the east. “It’s a perfect study of what happens to a Rocky Mountain rivershed when you mine it,” she says. She collected water samples and bugs, comparing population diversity and abundance in the separate waterways. In the process, “we’ve discovered that contaminants go farther down the watershed than we ever thought they would,” she says. “And they can have impacts on every aspect of life in that river community.”

In the Elk River, Sexton found three contaminants that exceeded healthy thresholds. One in particular, a natural element called selenium that leaches from rocks exposed to weathering, is considered especially problematic. It biomagnifies, or increases in potency, as it filters through the food chain, and recent studies have found it can threaten life in lake water at levels as subtle as 0.8 milligram per liter. Fish with unhealthy levels of selenium may be born without gill plates and with other deformities. It can also lead to deformed eggs and reproductive failure.

Digging deep into the ecological minutia, Sexton discovered 72 species of algae in the unmined Flathead waters, but only 12 in the Elk. “That’s what drives all the life in the river,” she says. Perhaps as a result, biological diversity on the Elk appears to have been significantly impacted. Compared to the Flathead, the Elk harbored far fewer stoneflies and caddisflies, while mayflies, which thrive in disturbed environments, were doing better than the others.

Once they knew what to look for, biologists noticed selenium signals flickering throughout the Kootenai system, in Lake Koocanusa and even 60-plus miles downstream where the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho has been battling to recover dwindling white sturgeon. So far, contamination that far down has not been deadly, and the CSKT aim to keep it that way.

“At this point, I’m not sure anyone would argue that there’s not a selenium pollution problem in the Elk River,” Sexton says.

In 2014, the province approved Teck’s Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, which established water quality targets for selenium and other mine-related contaminants. The company has since spent more than $1 billion (Canadian) implementing it, according to Dale Steeves, Teck’s director of stakeholder relations. “Our plan is working,” he added.

But in 2019, with the company looking to expand its Fording River project into the largest coal mine in North America, studies showed that the downstream western cutthroat trout population had plummeted by 93 percent since 2017.

(Credit:Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock)

Teck now operates two water treatment facilities, with more planned or under construction, and expects to be able to treat more than 14 million gallons of water per day — nearly three times the 2020 capacity — later this year, Steeves said. The investment is proof of how much there is to gain and lose in the valley.

“The Elk River is the worst-case scenario you can find,” Sexton says. “I didn’t always think this way, but I’ve come to think of it as a case study for B.C.’s broken mining policy.”

(Credit: Weekend Warrior Photos/Shutterstock)

Conflicting Interest

When it comes to mining regulation in B.C., only a thin veneer separates church and state. Both enforcement of environmental protections and the promotion of the mining sector falls under the authority of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation. (The department’s name was changed in November of 2020 to replace “Petroleum Resources” with “Low Carbon Innovation.”) In a 2016 report, the province’s own auditor general found those two roles to be “diametrically opposed,” noting that operating under the same roof “creates an irreconcilable conflict,” the result of which has been quick permitting, infrequent inspections and weak enforcement.

“We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the Ministry of Mines and the Ministry of Energy were not met,” the report concluded.

In the years since, the ministry has taken substantial action to improve mining oversight, says Meghan McRae, the ministry’s communications director, and has beefed up enforcement. But critics contend that, with 13 active mines and hundreds of permanently or temporarily closed mines that have the potential to leak harmful chemicals, there are too many risks to monitor.

“There’s a lack of boots on the ground. It comes down to the fact that the government has no money for this,” says Nikki Skuce, co-founder of the B.C. Mining Law Reform Network, which advocates for stricter mining regulations. Setting out to create a map of the province’s abandoned mining sites, Skuce quickly found that the information was not readily available through the government. Her group, in partnership with a trust, spent around $20,000 Canadian ($16,000 USD) pulling it all together.

The Kootenai tribes ran into similar setbacks when trying to understand what threat the Elk Valley mines might pose to their waters. The lion’s share of water quality and ecological data is collected by mining companies that report their findings to the province. Sometimes it takes years for that information to become public.

“In the U.S., agencies are working together to get a picture of contamination, but if we want to look over the border for a picture of what’s happening there, Teck holds the data,” Sexton says. This has left communities from Montana to Alaska wondering what might be floating downriver.

“The way that these mines are built and regulated, it’s really not an ‘if’ hypothetical question, it’s a ‘when’ problem,” says Amelia Marchand, environmental trust manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville in Washington State, about the risk of an accidental disaster. Noting a lack of consultation from B.C.’s government, she worries that in the event of an accident at the large copper mine expansion being planned upstream on the Similkameen River, the Colville wouldn’t find out until it’s too late.

On Aug. 4, 2014, those fears became all too real for some when the dam holding back a lake of gold and copper tailings breached at the Mount Polley mine in central B.C. The accident, caused by faulty engineering that didn’t account for erosion, spewed about 30 million cubic yards of waste slurry into Quesnel Lake.

“We had been worried about Mount Polley, but we didn’t think what happened would happen,” says Sellars, who lives in nearby Williams Lake. “I was just in shock; I didn’t believe it.”

It was the largest environmental mining disaster in Canadian history, and, three years later, the province missed a deadline to pursue charges under both the Environmental Management Act and Mines Act. As of this writing, Canadian citizens have paid some $40 million Canadian ($32 million USD) to cover cleanup, because B.C. does not require, as the EPA does, that mining companies put up the costs of cleanup and mitigation as bonds before receiving a permit.

Mining reformers like Skuce have been calling for a robust financial assurance system, similar to what Quebec has instituted, to ensure that taxpayers aren’t on the hook in the event of a disaster or a mining company going bankrupt before cleaning up a site. The province is only starting to put this system in place. According to the auditor general, the estimated total liability for all mines is more than $2.1 billion Canadian ($1.7 billion USD), while the ministry has obtained financial securities for less than half of that.

When the province does act on violations, critics say it does so halfheartedly. In March, for instance, B.C. ordered Teck to pay $60 million Canadian ($48 million USD) for not adequately treating water downstream of its existing Fording River coal operations. Although the company was found to be out of compliance during each year between 2012 and 2019, the fine was issued only for 2012. Sexton would like to believe this history of noncompliance would quash Teck’s request to expand its Fording River mine, but the project appears to be moving forward anyway.

The Mount Polley dam breach in 2014 carved a destructive path through the B.C. landscape before dumping more than 6 billion gallons of mining contaminants into Quesnel Lake and nearby waterways. (Credit: Chris Blake/Quesnel River Watershed Alliance)

Reforms Underway

Far to the northwest of the Kootenai watershed, Toronto-based Seabridge Gold is pursuing one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines in the salmon-rich headwaters of the Unuk River, which enters the Pacific Ocean near Ketchikan, Alaska. Seabridge has undergone a six-year environmental review, monitored water quality along the Unuk since 2007 and proposed to build a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. The KSM mine would also dig one of the largest human-made holes on Earth, erect one of the highest dams in North America, and require wastewater treatment for 200 years after its closure.

For opponents of the project, the failure of the Mount Polley dam and persistent elevated selenium levels below the Elk Valley are proof that industry assurances are not enough to wager the most pristine Chinook salmon habitat remaining on Earth.

After years of grassroots efforts from people like Sellars, U.S. agencies in Alaska, Montana and nearby states are responding. Since 2017, they have spent more than $7 million (USD) monitoring and documenting contaminants in transboundary rivers, with the hope of swaying B.C.’s pro-mining agenda. In the Gem State, where the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho has been trying to save the endangered white sturgeon, new selenium standards went into place in 2018. In 2020, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality capped a six-year effort, championed by the Kootenai tribes, to bang out new water-quality standards for the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa. And in Washington state, where the Confederated Tribes of the Colville are collaborating with upstream First Nations on their own water quality standards, 25 state legislators recently penned a letter calling on B.C. Premier John Horgan to better regulate transboundary mines.

For its part, the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation has shown a willingness to adapt. Following the auditor general’s recommendations, it created a Mine Investigation Unit to enforce regulations — though still under the ministry’s umbrella — and brought the first successful prosecutions in two decades. It has also invested $20 million Canadian ($16 million USD) over three years to hire 65 safety and enforcement officials, and increased its limitation period for action under the Mines Act and the Environmental Management Act from three to five years.

Concerned Canadians at a B.C. courthouse present a petition with 25,000 signatures, seeking legal action after the Mount Polley mining disaster. (Credit: Courtesy of MinningWatch Canada)

With these and other changes, officials intend to clean up B.C.’s image while continuing to churn up precious metals that combine into steel, produce renewable energy and power the province’s continued economic prosperity. But to Sellars, who doesn’t call for an outright end to mining, the updates are yet another chapter in a story that’s been playing out since the Gold Rush: “Most government people look at the world like it’s a triangle with people at the top. Indigenous people look at it like a circle with everything connected.”

Asked if mining can be done responsibly in B.C., Sellars says, “Nobody’s ever really tried it.”

Stephen Robert Miller is an environmental journalist based in Colorado.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.