DOING SOME DIGGING Mineral Development Spurs Canada/U.S. Cross Border Dispute

The world's longest undefended border, the one between Canada and the United States, allows free movement of pollut...
The world's longest undefended border, the one between Canada and the United States, allows free movement of pollution as well as people. Arguments between the two countries are heating up over activities on one side that affect the other.

CMJ has told its Net News readers about the fight between TECK COMINCO and the U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (EPA) (see Dec. 17, 2003 Doing Some Digging). Residents of Washington State complain that the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt are polluted by effluent from the Trail smelter. The EPA wants to force Teck Cominco to pay for a study and clean-up under terms of the American Superfund law (CERCLA). Teck Cominco says U.S. law cannot be applied to an operation in Canada. It has generously offered to fund a $13-million study of human health and ecological impact under EPA supervision. The EPA has repeatedly rejected the company's offer, and the jurisdictional dispute is unresolved.

Last month two members of the COLVILLE RESERVATION launched a lawsuit against the Teck Cominco alleging that the company dumps as much as 3.6 tons of mercury into the Columbia River every year. The company denies the allegation, noting that it has spent $1 billion over the past 20 years to ensure it meets strict health criteria in both Canada and the United States.

The dispute between Teck Cominco, the residents of Washington state and the EPA will is only one instance of cross-border environmental problems that are the source of increasing friction between these two countries. There are several others creating tension.

REDFERN RESOURCES of Vancouver plans to reopen the Tulsequah Chief polymetallic mine in British Columbia. The mine is located on the border between the towns of Aitlin, B.C., and Juneau, Alaska. Canadian native groups fear that new roads in the area will spoil the wild nature of the land. Alaskan fishermen fear a tailings dam failure that could poison the Taku River. Redfern expects the last of the necessary permits for reopening will be issued this fall, but the company fought a lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court to get this far.

Residents of Montana are angry that British Columbia will allow exploration and development of coal bed methane resources in the southeast corner of the province. The headwaters of the Flathead River are there just north of Glacier National Park, and the worry is that the river will be contaminated once the drills start turning. Montana governor Judy Martz contacted the Canadian ministers of environment and foreign affairs, asking that the effects of methane drilling be studied before activity beings. She has come under criticism in her own state for allowing coal bed methane development in southeast Montana without environmental review.

The British Columbia government encourages coal bed methane development and has rejected requests that would postpone granting exploration licences. It is estimated there are 2.5 trillion m of coal bed methane in the province. The province is planning to auction exploration rights near the Flathead and Elk rivers on August 25.

Mechanisms exist for protecting water resources in both Canada and the United States. The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 sets out water rights and prohibits either country from contaminating water that flows into the other. An International Joint Commission (IJC) exists to mediate disputes, but both sides must agree to take part. Recently British Columbia has refused to submit to IJC authority. Something has to changeprobably the stubborn attitudes on both sides of the border.

Co-operation rather than confrontation could go a long way toward smoothing relations between Canada and the United States. Admittedly, these water quality disputes are less important than the U.S.-led war in Iraq or the war on terrorism. In the meantime they remain an uncomfortable thorn in the sides of citizens in both countries.


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