After Teck Resources Ltd. was formally charged for a fish kill at a water treatment plant designed to tackle selenium pollution, conservation groups began asking the government to halt the expansion of the Elk Valley’s coal industry.
The West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Facility was temporarily shut down after it killed 74 fish between October 16 and November 5, 2014. An internal review found the $120 million facility had been releasing harmful substances including nitrite and ammonia into the environment after its biological treatment technology malfunctioned.
The plant was constructed to remove selenium and other minerals from mine sites as part of a plan to clean up the Elk Valley watershed, which has become contaminated by almost a century of coal mining.
Selenium is a mineral element found in rocks and soil. It is beneficial to humans in very small quantities but as it slowly leaches into rivers and streams when waste rock is exposed to the elements, it becomes more concentrated and toxic. It has been found to cause deformities in fish and other aquatic life.
A 2013 report by Ric Hauer of the Flathead Lake Biological Station at the University of Montana found the Elk River contains toxic levels of selenium and other mining byproducts.
The study, commissioned by Glacier National Park, compared water quality in the Elk River with the neighbouring Flathead River basin. Researchers tested above and below mines and compared their results to the pristine waters of the nearby Flathead River.
Hauer’s study found selenium levels were 10 times higher in the Elk River, and also found increased levels of nitrogen and sulphate.
“Excessive selenium levels, which have been found in fish tissue on both sides of the border, threaten reproduction and cause spinal and gill deformations in trout and other fish species,” said Hauer in a statement. “Absent effective treatment, selenium is expected to continue leaching from waste rock dumps for generations.”
That year, B.C.’s Environment Minister Terry Lake announced no new coal mines would be approved in the Elk Valley until Teck developed a system to lower levels of selenium and other substances in the Elk River.
Teck launched the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan to reverse the damage to the Elk River watershed. As part of the plan, the company is investing $600 million into research, water diversion and treatment.
The plan sets water quality targets for substances such as selenium, nitrate, sulphate and cadmium, as well as a plan to manage calcite formation.
It calls for the construction of four water treatment facilities near a number of coal mining operations, of which the West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Facility was the first to be put into operation.
Recently, three charges under the Fisheries Act were laid against Teck in relation to the Line Creek fish kill. The matter is set to go before a judge for a disposition hearing on May 8 at the Provincial Court of British Columbia in Fernie.
In response to the charges, a coalition of Canadian and American conservation groups are calling for a stop to the expansion of the Elk Valley’s mining industry until the selenium issue is under control.
The B.C. government has approved expansions at four of Teck’s five Elk Valley coal mines and three new mines from other companies have been proposed but selenium levels in the Elk River watershed are still a serious threat to fish populations, said the conservation groups Wildsight and the Flathead Wild Coalition in a joint statement.
They argue that despite more than three years of operations at West Line Creek, Teck’s treatment process has still not safely solved the selenium problem from that mine. Selenium-leaching waste rock dumps at all five of Teck’s Elk Valley mines continue to grow and selenium levels in the Elk River and downstream continue to increase, said their statement.
“Teck must do more to make sure selenium levels downstream of waste rock dumps are safe for fish,” said Ryland Nelson, Wildsight’s Southern Rockies program manager in a statement. “We hope Environment Canada will continue their enforcement actions to push Teck to fix their water pollution problems.”
Since 2013, four of Teck’s steelmaking coal operations in the Elk Valley have received regulatory approval for extensions, which will ensure their survival for decades to come.
Its Line Creek Operations Phase II expansion was approved in 2013, which will extend the mine’s life by approximately 18 years.
Fording River Operations’ expansion – called the Swift project – was approved in 2015 and will extend its mine life by approximately 25 years.
The Greenhills Operations Cougar Pit Extension was approved in 2016 and will extend the mine’s life by approximately six years.
Elkview Operations’ Baldy Ridge Extension was approved in 2016, extending the mine’s life by approximately 23 years.
“Without these extensions, those operations would not be able to maintain the nearly 4,000 jobs that depend on them,” said a statement released by Nic Milligan, manager of community and aboriginal affairs for Teck.
Milligan also noted that Teck is meeting, “all permit conditions related to selenium at Line Creek Operations.”
B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said Teck is already taking steps to lower selenium levels in the Elk Valley and accused the conservation groups of playing politics.
“There are no new coal mines being permitted presently in the Elk Valley,” he said. “And there won’t be any new coal mines permitted until we are absolutely certain that the existing coal mines can deal with the selenium issue.”
Bennett accused the conservation groups of raising the long-discussed and divisive issue to try and influence the provincial election in May.
“The fact that [Wildsight and the Flathead Wild Coalition] raised this [a few] months before an election is not accidental, they always participate in the election,” said Bennett. “They are anti-mining and have always been anti-mining. They don’t even support the coal mining industry that exists in the valley today. And they will deny that but I know that to be the case.”
Bennett noted that there has been mining in the Elk Valley for over 75 years but until recently nobody knew selenium was such an important issue. He said the government’s plan is to clean up the watershed while the Elk Valley’s mines continue operating, “so we have an economy and people have jobs.”
“It’s funny that four years later Wildsight raises exactly the same issue they raised in the last election,” he said. “It seems to me that they would like the government to just say ‘you can’t expand’ but they know what that means. They’re not stupid. They know that means these mines will have to close. We’re going to find a way to keep these mines operating and deal with the selenium issue as well.”