Why is BC allowing toxic water pollution to flow for centuries?

More than five years ago, the BC Government finally told Teck, owner of five mountaintop-removal coal mines in the Elk Valley, to make a plan to clean up their act and reduce water pollution in the Elk River watershed. Water pollution had been slowly getting worse for decades before 2013, threatening fish as far downstream as Lake Koocanusa, but no one did much other than talk about it.

Now, five years later, there’s more pollution in our rivers and more toxic selenium in fish. Last year, more selenium-leaching waste rock than ever before was piled up in the Elk Valley. Selenium flows through the streams and rivers of the Elk Valley, disrupting reproduction and causing birth defects in trout, other fish and other animals that live in or near the water. The long-term selenium pollution problem, which will last for many centuries, is still getting worse every day—and no one has a long-term plan to stop it.

Teck’s government-approved plan to bring down pollution levels—the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan—hasn’t worked. And now, Teck is proposing an Implementation Plan Amendment, a bureaucratic way of saying that the Plan didn’t work, but if the province gives them four more years, things will get better. But even if Teck does manage to achieve what they propose in the Plan Amendment (to bring selenium pollution levels in Lake Koocanusa down to what they were 5 years ago and keep them there for 35 years), no one has any kind of plan to deal with the pollution once the coal is gone. As far as anyone knows, the plan is to just keep running 15 very expensive water treatment plants for centuries and centuries. Who’ll pay to keep running and replacing those plants so far into the future?

Selenium-polluted water flows downstream from waste rock at the Greenhills coal mine into the Fording and Elk Rivers. Photo by Garth Lenz / ILCP.

Changing the rules

So what’s in the Implementation Plan Amendment? Unfortunately, Teck hasn’t released the extensive document yet, just a six-page summary with few details. What we do know is that Teck is planning for concentrations of selenium and other pollution to exceed their permitted limits in the Elk Valley and in Lake Koocanusa for at least four more years. Other permit requirements, including to build water treatment plants, are being delayed by years as well. It’s clear that neither Teck nor the provincial government are interested in the public having much say about plans for a lot more water pollution over the coming years.

Of course, pollution limits are only as good as their enforcement—and enforcement of the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan is weak. Water pollution in the Elk Valley has chronically been above limits, but the BC government has only given out warning after warning. If a fine is eventually levied, it’s only for an amount equal to a few minutes of profit for Teck in the Elk Valley. That’s not an effective fine; it’s just a cost of doing business. There’s no doubt that it is much cheaper to pay provincial fines than it is to change mining methods to prevent water pollution.

Selenium flows downstream out of the Elk Valley into Lake Koocanusa, where the still water allows pollution to build up in the ecosystem and in fish.  Even though the current limit is 2 μg/l, selenium has already risen quite a bit higher and Teck’s Implementation Plan Amendment predicts selenium will rise above 2 μg/l every year until 2022. Pollution levels in Koocanusa have risen so high that the international Ktunaxa Nation, recently asked BC and Montana for a lowered selenium limit of 1.5 μg/l immediately to protect fish, while the international Lake Koocanusa Monitoring & Research Working Group works through a scientific process to set a safe limit for the Lake—a limit that is widely expected to be 1.5 μg/l or lower.

The upper Fording River, just downstream of Teck’s coal mines, is one of the most heavily polluted areas in the Elk Valley.

Hiding the real problem

What’s even worse for our rivers and Koocanusa is that these treatment plants just mask the real problem. Valley-filling waste rock dumps at the coal mines, piled up in the same way as they have been for decades, are only growing every day. If the water treatment plants stop working 30 years down the road, selenium pollution levels could be more than twice as high as they are now.

Relying on water treatment plants to treat selenium for hundreds and hundreds of years is like relying on a poorly engineered pile of dirt to hold back a mine tailings pond at Mt. Polley. Eventually, the system will fail and the people and ecosystems downstream will suffer the consequences.

In theory, BC’s reclamation bonding system should ensure that our government holds enough in bonds to clean up the impacts of mining. But the reality is that our reclamation bonding system just doesn’t work in cases where the problems are long-term. The reclamation cost estimates are provided by Teck and the total amount they came up with is far too small to deal with the scale of the water pollution problem (and is less than a year’s profit for Teck in the Elk Valley). Companies only have to provide bonds for a portion of the total (currently, Teck has only paid half of their estimate), and the reclamation bonding system explicitly ignores any costs beyond a hundred years. In the long-term, the costs of dealing with water pollution in the Elk Valley are going to fall on the people, not Teck.

Bull trout are one of the fish species threatened by selenium pollution in the Elk Valley. Photo by Bruce Kirkby.

Where do we go from here?

Does Teck’s water treatment technology even work? No one knows for certain. The one water treatment plant that does exist has spent most of its life shut down after killing fish downstream or releasing more toxic forms of selenium. Apparently, it has been running again since the beginning of 2019, but a few months is hardly a solid track record to use for decade-long plans.

Some will say that Teck is trying, so we should be patient. Teck never fails to mention their plans to spend a large amount of money building water treatment plants over the coming years. The reality is that Teck made a profit of more than $2 billion in the Elk Valley last year, so they can afford to do more. Teck profits from mining coal—real coal, not efforts to mine coal—but when it comes to environmental performance, trying seems to be enough for the province.

Big business is in the business of making money and without strong limits and real enforcement from the province, pollution levels will continue to rise in the Elk Valley—leaving the people of British Columbia with a toxic legacy for centuries.

The province shouldn’t let Teck repeatedly violate permits—but they do. Why does BC keep giving Teck more permits when they can’t meet the conditions of their current permits?

It’s time for real enforcement, with effective fines and consequences that create real incentive for change. Finding a long-term solution to the selenium pollution problem will likely take fundamental changes to mining practices and a move away from valley-filling waste rock dumps. We can’t rely on Teck alone to fix this problem.

Real change requires that the province no longer accepts band-aid solutions. The legacy of pollution will continue to grow unless mining practices change on the ground.

Photo by Garth Lenz / ILCP