What flows around…: U.S. Supreme Court holds Canadian mines accountable

For two weeks we had slowly cruised the nearly empty highways of the Canadian Rockies in our Volkswagen camper. It was late fall, well after the tourist season had ended and the leaves on the riparian brush were turning gold and red in the vast ice-carved valleys. The remnants of the Columbia ice fields still clung to precipitous mountain walls. The nearby rivers, showing the stunningly beautiful turquoise of true glacial waters, ran freely in their braided beds. It seemed like paradise, but only a short while later, our journey led to environmental Hell.

We turned our way west, past the Selkirk, Valhalla and Purcell mountain ranges that hold in their rocky hands the long, deep finger lakes at the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River. Far warmer than the rock and ice of Jasper, the orchards still had leaves and the fruits of fall hung heavy on the branches as we rolled into Nelson, almost due north of Spokane.

Being a few years back, there was no sign yet of the impending development of the massive coal deposits in the nearby Fernie area that would threaten the pristine rivers across the border to the south. The happy little place seemed content with its small college, its agrarian neighbors, and the smiles of those who came to visit. The looming large-scale energy development seemed incongruous and unwanted.

From there our journey took a turn to the south through tiny towns settled by Russian immigrants. Local grocery stores were adorned with Cyrillic characters, and it seemed every restaurant served the same daily special—borscht. We followed a small but beautiful river into the pines and stopped to camp for the night, looking forward to the soothing gurgle of the dancing waters. The campsite was high on a bluff, looking down into the stream, dappled by the broken light streaming through the foliage. Although I had no intention of fishing, like any life-long angler I looked for the afternoon flight of aquatic insects and the rise of trout darting from the dark holes and undercut banks to snatch the flies from the surface.

But for some odd reason, there were no bugs. Nor were there any trout.

The next day we wound our way up a serpentine roadway leading to a high pass through steep and thickly forested hills, still following the beautiful but dead stream to its source. Without warning, we found that source as we topped the pass and suddenly, the reason for the stream’s lack of life came abruptly into view. A massive open-pit mine had literally torn the tops off the peaks, scarring the landscape to the south, where the United States border lay a mere 10 miles away. Nothing grew on the barren slopes, nor was there any indication that reclamation efforts had ever been contemplated, much less initiated. It was like a thermonuclear disaster had scorched the earth, leaving poisons seeping from the broken and tortured ground.

This, we discovered, was the notorious Teck Cominco mine. Begun in the 19th century when men traded shovels and picks for steam drills and draglines, it continues to ravage the earth today. For all those long years, the lead and zinc ore has been processed in the nearby town of Trail, British Columbia, where the deadly by-products of smelter slag have poisoned the waters, killed the fish, and destroyed the river that flows across the border only a few miles later through the lands of the Colville Tribe and into Lake Roosevelt behind the Grand Coulee Dam. The environmental damage is so severe that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has listed the area as a Superfund site with an estimated $1 billion price tag to even partially restore the environment.

Last year a federal appeals court ruled that Teck Cominco was responsible for at least part of the cleanup costs under the jurisdiction of the Superfund law. Teck Cominco challenged the ruling, joined by American and Canadian mining interests as well as the government of British Columbia, sending the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The mining company argued that it could not be held liable for the cleanup under the Superfund law unless the company “arranged” for the pollution to wind up in American waters. Instead, they said, the damages from pollution were “an action of nature” because the rivers flowed downhill into the United States of their own accord.

The Supreme Court refused this week to consider Teck Cominco’s appeal—a hopeful development for Montanans. But we now face similar, if not worse, threats of cross-border pollution from the proposed coal and coal bed methane development in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River. Like the Columbia, this waterway will flow south of its own accord. Like the Columbia, any pollution that makes its way into the river will be carried downstream and ultimately poison the North Fork and Flathead Lake.

This will not be an act of nature. This will be a deliberate and wholly foreseeable desecration of the environment by mining companies that see cross-border waterways as handy toilets for their industrial pollution. Only now, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, what gets flushed will be tracked back to its source and those responsible could face penalties for their environmental crimes. 

While Montanans can rejoice in this latest turn of events, we should also take a hard look in the mirror. Domestic mining interests joined Teck Cominco’s appeal because they don’t want to be held liable for their cross-border pollution either—a stance that’s every bit as bogus as Teck Cominco’s phony claims. We share our planet, which did not come with predetermined borders, and likewise we share the responsibility to preserve our environment.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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