Tester Calls on State Department to Tackle Transboundary Water Pollution

Senator urges Secretary of State Blinken to work with Canada and address selenium contamination in Montana’s Kootenai watershed

U.S. Senator Jon Tester is calling on the U.S. State Department to get involved in the ongoing effort to stem the flow of pollution from Canadian mines to waterways in Northwest Montana.

In a letter, Tester urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to request a referral to the International Joint Commission (IJC) concerning the selenium contamination issue in the Kootenai watershed in Montana, and for the State Department to engage with the Canadian government and the IJC to resolve this critical transboundary water quality issue.

“Water quality is the cornerstone of Montana’s way of life and our $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy,” Tester wrote. “Selenium contamination from mining on the Canadian Elk River poses a direct threat to that way of life, and the region’s outdoor recreation economy. For decades, mining operations in Canada have caused elevated selenium levels in the transboundary watershed. Efforts to curb selenium contamination have been unsuccessful, and selenium levels continue to rise. Meanwhile, mining companies are proposing new mines without a tested plan in place to control selenium and other contaminants.”

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has continually found increased levels of contamination, including selenium, nitrates, sedimentation, and other impairments associated with Canadian coal mining in the watershed, and in 2019 researchers at the EPA and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found high levels of selenium in fish eggs and tissues.

State and federal agencies have found elevated selenium levels in fish as far downstream as Idaho, and Idaho has declared the Kootenai River an impaired stream. Just last month, the Canadian government issued its largest-ever fine under the Canadian Fisheries Act for violating water quality laws for violations in the Elk River Watershed.

The State of Montana and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have also called for referrals to the IJC, which resolves boundary water disputes between the US and Canada.

“Members of the IJC have taken a direct interest in the issue, and are awaiting a formal referral request to begin their review and adjudication process,” Tester concluded. “Montanans have waited for over three decades to see real action curtailing selenium contamination in their water. They shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”

Tester has long advocated for a fix to halt the flow of pollution into American waters. He joined a bipartisan group of colleagues in calling on Canadian officials to implement tougher regulations for rivers that originate in Canada and flow into the U.S., noting that communities in Northwest Montana depend on clean, healthy water to survive, and as part of the 2020 Interior Appropriations Bill, Tester secured $1.5 million for USGS streamgages to monitor transboundary watersheds and continuing support for monitoring at Lake Koocanusca, the transboundary reservoir in the Kootenai watershed.

Tester also secured language directing EPA and State Department to provide a report to the Committee on remaining data gaps for the watershed.

Tester’s letter to Blinken is available HERE.