Flathead Beacon – State Department Pledges Action on Montana’s Polluted Transboundary Watersheds

 Secretary Tillerson says he is initiating a bilateral review process to address upstream contaminants leaching from Canadian coal mines.

By Tristan Scott.

The U.S. Department of State is spearheading a plan to tackle the decade-long problem brewing in the transboundary Kootenai River watershed, where toxic contaminants leaching from upstream Canadian coal mines into Montana’s watersheds continue to poison the prized aquatic ecosystem.

In an unprecedented call to action at the federal level, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, responding to urgent pleas by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, detailed steps the department was taking to ramp up pressure on the Canadian government and conduct a comprehensive review of legacy impacts of transboundary pollution in the Kootenai River system.

Scientists, tribes and conservation organizations who have worked to draw attention to the perilous situation hailed the response as a major step forward in efforts to stem the flow of pollutants and ensure an effective plan is put in place. “

Agencies, tribes and stakeholders in this region have been trying to get the mining issues of the Elk River Valley on the agenda of the State Department for a decade now, and this is one of the most substantive responses I have ever seen,” said Erin Sexton, a research scientist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana who is representing the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

“This response contains an actual promise to do something, which I’ve never seen until now.” Researchers studying Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, which form the watershed straddling the U.S.-Canada boundary, report alarming concentrations of a mining contaminant called selenium, which leaches from piles of waste created by coal mines along B.C.’s Elk River and is accumulating in the shared watershed downstream.

The need for more stringent water quality standards gained urgency last summer as Teck Coal, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates five steelmaking coal mines just across the border from Montana, announced plans to shut down its active water quality treatment facility on a tributary of the Elk River called Line Creek.

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