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Toothless treaties won’t solve cross-border pollution

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Toothless treaties won’t solve cross-border pollution

Feb 09, 2024 | 6:04 am ET
By George Ochenski
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Toothless treaties won’t solve cross-border pollution
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Scientists and conservation groups are pushing for more regulation to prevent mining contamination that stems from the Elk Valley in British Columbia and into the Kootenai River, which flows through Montana and Idaho. (Courtesy of Genny Hoyle)

For those Montanans with good memories, the recently announced acquisition of the Teck Resources coal mines in British Columbia’s Elk Valley by Swiss international megacorporation Glencore might bring an unwelcome sense of deja vu.

Why? Because it’s eerily reminiscent of the 1977 acquisition of the Anaconda Company by ARCO — another international megacorporation that acquired an environmental nightmare which continues nearly 50 years later.

When ARCO bought the Anaconda Company, it’s likely its interest was in the company’s vast assets in land and minerals —  not Butte’s Berkeley Pit. Assuming the environmental sins of the past would go unaddressed, as was the standard operating procedure back then, ARCO decided to simply throw the switch to shut off the massive pumps that kept the Berkeley Pit from flooding, and cease the mining operations.

But soon toxic brown water began to fill the bottom of the pit, a 1,000 feet below the surface of the surrounding land, and it hasn’t stopped since.

Undeterred by what it didn’t see as a problem, ARCO likewise shut down the Anaconda smelter because you don’t need a smelter if you’re not mining copper to feed it. The “gold” for ARCO was in Anaconda’s copper mines in Chile, not Montana. Until that is, Chile nationalized those copper mines.

ARCO’s next surprise came on Dec. 11, 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed the newly-passed Superfund Act into law. Suddenly, ARCO’s acquisition didn’t look so great since the law mandated that those who buy industrial sites are deemed the “responsible party” for cleaning up those environmental disasters. Many decades and hundreds of millions of dollars later, ARCO continues to struggle with its responsibilities and Montana continues to wait for the fulfillment of its constitutional mandate that “all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed.”

Comes now Glencore to the enormous environmental disaster created by Teck Resources — including its significant cross-border pollution into the Kootenai River. So far, the feeble efforts by our federal government to deal with the on-going pollution have failed miserably. The mining goes on, the drainage continues, and the pollution follows the water downhill across the border into Montana.

Anyone who has been to this once-lovely area of “Beautiful British Columbia” can attest to vast environmental destruction and the deadly consequences of the significant selenium pollution. Even though a stream may sparkle, don’t waste a lot of time looking for the rising trout. As reported, selenium “accumulates in fish and bird ovaries, which leads to fewer eggs hatching, animals hatching with birth defects, and young that die before they can reproduce.”
Despite the fact the U.S. and Canada have had a Boundary Water Treaty since 1909, there is no credible enforcement mechanism that seems to be working — and without enforcement treaties and laws are just words on paper.

Unfortunately, Canada doesn’t have a Superfund law to hold polluters responsible for the environmental disasters they leave in the wake of their industrial profiteering — and Canadian mining companies, sad to say, are notorious for creating environmental disasters.

What it means for the future of that cross-border pollution is dismal indeed. It’s unlikely the Swiss corporation is willing to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars it’s going to take to clean up the Elk Valley mines.
But perhaps Canada can learn from the mistakes we made in allowing extractive industries to walk away from their environmental destruction — and hold those industrial polluters financially responsible for costly but necessary remediation.
In light of a toothless Border Treaty, what’s really needed, both for us, them, and the Kootenai River, is a Canadian version of Superfund.
George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana’s longest-running columnist.