Kootenai River Among America’s Most Endangered Rivers

Selenium Pollution from Canadian Coal Mines Threaten Clean Water, Wildlife

April 17th, 2013

Scott Bosse, American Rivers, 406-570-0455

Dave Hadden, Headwaters Montana, 406-837-0783

Ryland Nelson, Wildsight, 250-531-0445

Michael Jamison, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), 406-862-6722

www.AmericanRivers.org/KootenaiRiver

Washington, D.C.- American Rivers named the transboundary Kootenai River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2013 today due to the threat that five open-pit coal mines along one of its major tributaries pose to water quality, native fish and wildlife, and world-class recreation.

American Rivers and its partners are calling on the U.S. State Department and the International Joint Commission to halt the coal mine expansions until an independent study is completed to determine the cumulative impacts of the mines on water quality, fish, and wildlife. 

The coal mines are located along the Elk River in southeastern British Columbia, which flows into the Kootenay (as it is called in Canada) just north of the U.S. – Canadian border. Runoff from the mines is causing alarming levels of selenium contamination in the Elk, which is revered by anglers for its native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout fishery. Teck Resources, Ltd., which owns the coal mines, is seeking to expand four of its five mines despite their ongoing environmental problems.

“Our America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers that face a critical decision point in the next year,” said Scott Bosse, American Rivers’ Northern Rockies Director in Bozeman. “The Kootenai is one of the most spectacular rivers in this part of the country, but it faces an uncertain future due to open-pit coal mining across the border in British Columbia. We hope this listing inspires citizens and elected leaders on both sides of the border to take swift and decisive action.”

“As a fly fishing guide, the health of my business literally relies on the health of the Kootenai River,” said Tim Linehan, a fishing and hunting outfitter on the Kootenai River. “This is pretty simple.  Rivers don’t stop flowing because of international borders.  If we’re starting to see problems in the headwaters, in this case the Canadian side of the drainage, it’s critically important to take immediate action to prevent those problems from moving downstream as well.”

The Kootenai River, the second largest tributary of the Columbia River by volume, drains an 18,000 square mile watershed that spreads across Montana, Idaho, and British Columbia. The basin provides some of the highest quality water resources in the nation. Not only is it home to several threatened fish species including bull trout and the Kootenai River white sturgeon, but it also provides critical flows for several endangered salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River. The Kootenai also serves as a recreation mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, drawing visitors from across the country with its remarkable fishing and paddling opportunities.

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Montana confirmed that runoff from the mines has raised selenium levels in the Elk River to more than ten times what has been observed in the nearby Flathead River, which is not affected by coal mining. Selenium is a naturally occurring element that becomes toxic to fish and wildlife when it is released into the environment at unnaturally high levels.

“Selenium pollution in the Kootenai River is an escalating problem.  The International Joint Commission successfully resolved the treatment of mountaintop removal coal mining in the neighboring Flathead River system.  We think the IJC is the appropriate place to discuss and resolve selenium pollution originating in British Columbia,” said Dave Hadden, Director of Headwaters Montana.

“The waters of the Kootenai River flow constantly across the border from British Columbia to Montana, and unfortunately so do the mine pollutants. This is an international problem that will require an international solution, much like the IJC provided so successfully for the transboundary Flathead River system,” said Michael Jamison, Glacier Program Manager, National Parks Conservation Association.  “What’s needed today is a moratorium on Canadian mine expansions until we can gather baseline data and establish a long-term mitigation plan. As downstream residents, we obviously have a very keen interest in what our upstream neighbors are sending our way.”

“For far too long the British Columbia and Canadian Governments have neglected to enforce water quality guidelines that are designed to protect the health of aquatic ecosystems like those of the Kootenay River,” said Ryland Nelson, Southern Rockies Program Manager for the Canadian Environmental Organization Wildsight.  “The oversight of an impartial IJC referral is welcomed and encouraged by residents on both sides of the border.”


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About American Rivers

About American Rivers

American Rivers protects wild rivers, restores damaged rivers, and conserves clean water for people and nature. Since 1973, American Rivers has protected and restored more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and the annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® campaign. Headquartered in Washington, DC, American Rivers has offices across the country and more than 200,000 members, supporters, and volunteers.

Rivers connect us to each other, nature, and future generations. Find your connections at AmericanRivers.org, Facebook.com/AmericanRivers, and Twitter.com/AmericanRivers.