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A new deal may help reduce water pollution in Montana, Idaho

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A new agreement between the U.S., Canada and Indigenous people on both sides of the northern border may signal a breakthrough in reducing transboundary water pollution. Tribes and the U.S. government have complained about Canadian inaction for more than a decade. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE RUNNING)

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: In a small plane, Erin Sexton, a biologist with the University of Montana, goes over the plan for a flight over the nearby Canadian border.

ERIN SEXTON: So we're going to fly up over the Montana north where it crosses into British Columbia.

BOLTON: We're flying over the Canadian Rockies to see five massive coal mines along BC's Elk River.

SEXTON: This is the Coal Mountain Mine here on the right.

BOLTON: The mountaintop is completely blasted away by dynamite. Even at 10,000 feet, you can see huge trucks hauling away coal and waste rock.

SEXTON: All of the waste dumps where you could see the mined rock and the water pit. These will permanently leach into the Fording and Elk River.

BOLTON: The mineral selenium is leaching into those rivers, which flow into the U.S. At high enough concentrations, it can be toxic to both fish and humans. Tom McDonald, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, says some tribal members have stopped eating fish.

TOM MCDONALD: We have to be able to eat fish out of any river system that's in our Aboriginal territory that we've relied on for the past 10- to 30,000 years.

BOLTON: Teck Resources, the Canadian company that runs the mines, declined to be interviewed for this story, but in this video says they've taken action to address pollution complaints.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Plant is showing positive results downstream of the plant.

BOLTON: But selenium levels have continued to exceed standards set by Montana and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For years, tribes in the U.S. and Canada have been pushing for the International Joint Commission to take action. The IJC settles disputes under the U.S.-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty. British Columbia has resisted commission involvement. Provincial officials declined an interview request, but this year, agreed to involve the IJC in the dispute. Tribal chairman Tom McDonald.

MCDONALD: This could be very significant for the environment, for all of our Indigenous tribes and peoples in North America.

BOLTON: The IJC only makes recommendations, but they do carry political weight. In the 1980s, the commission said BC shouldn't develop a mine on another river along the Montana-BC border. The provincial government followed that suggestion. The commission will start work on selenium pollution this summer and issue recommendations for reducing it in the future. McDonald is optimistic that will help not only clean up pollution here, but also help other transboundary tribes in Alaska.

MCDONALD: It's really critical that this could become a template for how we move into the future, especially with Canadian government.

BOLTON: For decades, a group of 15 Alaska tribes has called for the IJC to step in to resolve disputes over a dozen operating or permitted mines along major salmon-producing rivers in Southeast Alaska. Guy Archibald is the head of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission.

GUY ARCHIBALD: We're facing a salmon emergency, and we need to do something now.

BOLTON: Archibald says the Montana deal helps his group make its case for both countries to call in the IJC in Alaska.

ARCHIBALD: We've got a crack in the door here for Alaska, and that door is cracked open. You put your shoulder against it and push with all your might.

BOLTON: But whether that door will open for Alaska tribes isn't yet clear.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Columbia Falls, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND ELMIENE SONG, "MARKING MY TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.