Will new federal coal mining regulations stop Elk Valley selenium pollution?

Selenium pollution coming from the Elk Valley coal mines is a major problem and polluted water is harming fish as far downstream as Koocanusa Reservoir. So why isn’t government regulating selenium levels to protect fish, birds and all kinds of life that depend on clean water?

The answer is complicated. The good news: federal regulation is coming. The bad news: the new regulations have some serious loopholes — and they won’t reduce selenium pollution in the Elk Valley until 2025 at the earliest. We need strong federal regulation for selenium pollution from coal mines as soon as possible, because the long-term selenium problem in the Elk Valley is getting worse every day.

Federally, pollution that affects fish is regulated under the Fisheries Act. The Act is simple and clear: you can’t release any kind of harmful pollution into a fish-bearing stream, unless there is an exemption in law — and there is no exemption for selenium. But on the ground, it’s a different story: selenium pollution has been flowing in the Elk Valley for decades and so far, no selenium-related charges have been laid under the Fisheries Act. Enter Environment Canada’s Coal Mining Effluent Regulations, a draft proposal released late last year.

Are provincial regulations good enough?

Selenium pollution is provincially regulated through the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, a document developed by Teck with the province, the Ktunaxa Nation and others. The Plan sets out selenium reductions, but still allows high pollution levels — and it doesn’t address the long-term pollution problem, which will continue for centuries, long after all the coal has been mined.

The proposed federal regulations

The good news on the proposed federal regulations: they set some hard targets for discharges of polluted water, targets that are generally low enough to keep fish safe. Finally, we have rules that are based on the needs of our environment, instead of limits that take current and future pollution as inevitable and work downwards.

But here’s the bad news: there’s a big loophole. The proposed regulations allow existing mines in the mountains that meet a set of fairly arbitrary conditions to pollute our rivers a lot more. The mountain mine regulations set limits of selenium levels in our rivers, instead of at the source. To be fair, controlling selenium pollution is more difficult in the mountains, where groundwater can carry pollution underground for long distances. If pollution in our rivers is getting there through groundwater, we definitely need to monitor and regulate pollution levels directly in our rivers.

The problem with the regulations is that instead of regulating the selenium pollution both at the source and in our rivers, the mountain mine regulations exempt polluters from all of the regulations for pollution at the source. This applies even in cases where the vast majority of the selenium pollution may be coming from one or two sources, as it does in the Elk Valley. Mountain mines shouldn’t get a pass on point source pollution that they can control — we need to regulate point source pollution and pollution in our rivers.

What’s worse is that the mountain mine regulations focus on reducing from current high pollution levels instead of setting limits right from the start that are protective of our environment. Reductions of selenium levels in our rivers wouldn’t be required until 2025 or later. In the long term, selenium levels will be reduced significantly, but the regulations won’t be fully implemented until 2050. This is far too little, too late for the Elk Valley.

The problems don’t end there. Mines that are currently under care and maintenance — in other words, closed but still managed by their owners — won’t be subject to any of the regulations. One of the Elk Valley mines, Coal Mountain, will likely end up exempt and be allowed to continue to pollute.

More toxic forms of selenium, some of which are taken up a hundred times more quickly into the food chain, like the ones that Teck’s Line Creek treatment plant produced, simply aren’t regulated for mountain mines. And the cumulative effects of multiple mines in the same watershed, the key problem in the Elk Valley, aren’t even mentioned in the regulations.

What about the long term?

Finally, the regulations do nothing to require the long-term solutions that we really need: changes in mining practices to avoid selenium pollution in the first place. Mining companies come and go. Who will run these expensive water treatment plants for centuries? Regulations don’t mean much if there is no company left to regulate.

Selenium-leaching waste rock dumped in mountain valleys today will still be polluting our rivers a few hundred years in the future, but the regulations will allow water treatment, a relatively cheap, but short-term, solution. We need changes in mining practices that stop selenium leaching before it happens, so we don’t leave future generations with a toxic mess to deal with.

These regulations are an initial proposal from Environment Canada, but the mining industry has already been heavily influential in shaping them. Wildsight and our partners will continue working to give our rivers and fish a voice in the process. What happens over the next two years will have repercussions for centuries.