Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

Canada and US violating international water law at Devil’s Lake

A coalition of Canadian and American environmental groups launched a formal complaint today with the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) asserting that the governments of Canada and the United States have failed to uphold international environmental law concerning a controversial diversion of water from Devils Lake, North Dakota into Manitoba. The complaint asserts that both countries are failing to effectively enforce their environmental laws and is calling for an investigation by the CEC, an independent watchdog agency created under NAFTA.

Submitted by Sierra Legal Defence Fund on behalf of Friends of the Earth Canada, Friends of the Earth United States, People To Save The Sheyenne River and concerned citizens from North Dakota and Manitoba, the complaint presents evidence that the diversion of polluted waters from Devils Lake to the transboundary Red River represents a violation of both countries’ obligations under the 1909 International Boundary Waters Treaty.

“Canada and the U.S. are violating the international laws designed to protect our shared lakes and rivers from pollution,” says Sierra Legal lawyer Robert Wright. “An independent inquiry by the CEC will uncover why Canada and the U.S. have failed to resolve the dispute by not enforcing the century old Treaty.”

Last year, Canadian Members of Parliament conducted an emergency debate on the Devils Lake issue and put forward an all-party resolution urging both countries to make a reference to the International Joint Commission, the body established under the Treaty to deal with transboundary water issues. Instead, the US deferred negotiations to the politically appointed U.S. Council on Environmental Quality to broker a deal and thereby sidestep enforcement of the Treaty and the IJC.

“Devils Lake is another example of the Bush administration’s flouting of international law,” says Norman Dean, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth United States. “Where the interests of the US may be found wanting by an impartial body, the Bush administration goes outside the law. Proponents of the Devils Lake Outlet were clearly afraid to submit their scheme to the impartial scrutiny of the IJC. In no way can President Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality replace the role of the International Joint Commission in addressing the Devils Lake dispute.”

Last week, Manitoba Premier Gary Doer secured a promise from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to raise concerns over the Devils Lake diversion project when he meets this week with U.S. President George W. Bush. “We applaud Prime Minister Harper for heeding Manitoba’s urgent call to find an immediate, permanent solution for the Devils Lake debacle before North Dakota opens the floodgates on May 1st,” said Beatrice Olivastri, Chief Executive Officer of Friends of the Earth Canada. “As it is, dumping a few tonnes of gravel into a waterway and calling it a “filter” is simply not going to prevent pollutants and invasive species from flowing into the Red River. We must have a moratorium against any operation of the Devils Lake outlet until the promised commitments for safeguards are in place.”

The threat of North Dakota’s unilateral actions to divert contaminated water into Canada does not end with the Devils Lake outlet. Options are being developed to further divert water from the polluted Missouri River basin to the Red River, to Lake Winnipeg and ultimately to the Hudson Bay basin.

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