It's time to end water pollution in the Elk Valley

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Photo: Justin Black / ILCP

“We are hopeful that the Commissioner of the Environment will undertake an audit of Canada’s remarkable failure to adequately regulate coal mine pollution in the Elk Valley over the last twenty years. This regulatory failure has directly contributed to one of the most serious and permanent environmental disasters in Canadian history, and one of the world’s largest selenium contamination events. It is vital that such an audit be done, to better protect the Elk Valley – but also to ensure that this historic regulatory failure is not replicated elsewhere in Canada.”
Calvin Sandborn, University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre

In late July, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre (ELC) requested an inquiry by Canada’s Auditor General and the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development into regulatory negligence for Canada’s “failure to control Elk Valley coal mine pollution.” At the heart of this request is the dramatic increase in selenium and other pollution in the Elk River, increases that in some cases exceed by many times official guideline levels. Calls for action are not new, the ELC joins the US Government and BC’s own Auditor General in demanding action on this cross-border disaster.

Fording Coal’s “Greenhills” mountaintop removal coal mine, near Elkford, Elk Valley, B.C. Garth Lenz / ILCP

The issue of selenium in the Elk River and Kootenay watershed goes back decades. Government began monitoring selenium levels in the Elk River in the 1980s; in 1998, a task force was formed to examine the situation. Unfortunately, it would be another 15 years before serious action was taken, action in the form of the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan (EVWQP), adopted in 2014 to achieve the stated goal of “reversing pollution trends.”

The ELC report demonstrates that the measures in the EVWQP are grossly inadequate. Alarm bells rang to this effect in 2016 with the release of the BC Auditor General’s report, An Audit of Compliance and Enforcement of the Mining Sector, which pointed out that governments have failed to stop “the dramatic annual increases of selenium in the watershed’s tributaries.”

“Lack of sufficient and effective regulatory oversight and action by MoE [the Ministry of Environment] to address known environmental issues has allowed degradation of water quality in the Elk Valley…As selenium accumulates up the food chain, it can affect the development and survival of birds and fish, and may also pose health risks to humans.” — Carol Bellringer, BC Auditor General

Bellringer was critical of the reliance on water treatment in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan. In that plan, Teck and the Province rely heavily on water treatment plants to address the problem of selenium leaching into the watershed. Despite this criticism, in 2021 water treatment continues to be heralded as a solution, yet in 2016 the Auditor General emphasized that this “creates a future economic liability for government to monitor these facilities in perpetuity and ensure that they are maintained.” In other words, “Water treatment plants are essentially a short-term solution, since it is improbable that the company will be available to operate and pay for treatment plants centuries into the future.” (ELC Report) Yes, centuries into the future.

West slope cutthroat trout swim effortlessly against a crystal clear current in the Flathead River Valley. Michael J. Ready / ILCP RAVE

If calls from the US Government, the Auditor General’s report and others weren’t enough, in March 2021, Teck was handed the largest environmental fine in Canadian history. At $60 million, this fine reflected offences against the Fisheries Act for every day of the year 2012. The ELC report stated: “Teck admitted that it did not exercise due diligence to prevent the pollution, and did not have a comprehensive plan to address the known problem.” Further, the ELC report points out, the charges initially spanned the period from 2009-2019 yet a plea bargain reduced them to the 2012 offences.

Where then were the regulators, the federal and provincial governments, during the more than two decades of creeping disaster? How was it that the federal government failed to “discharge the core public duty to protect Canada’s fish and waters?” As Canadians, we must demand answers as to how this catastrophe was allowed to happen. Further, Teck must exercise due diligence and fix this problem. Our governments, who are charged with the public trust must ensure that this kind of disaster never happens again. To do so, the Commissioner of the Environment must undertake an audit of Canada’s failure to adequately regulate coal mine pollution in the Elk Valley.

Coal mines in the BC Rockies send toxic selenium pollution downstream that puts fish in danger, not just in BC, but in Lake Koocanusa and…Speak up 
Montana sets selenium pollution limit for Koocanusa, while BC stalls  Late last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved a new, lower limit…Learn more