From the Elk Valley to Tumbler Ridge, the economic boom of coal has brought money and jobs into rural communities across the province for over a century, but as industry continues to make record profits, wastewater is wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems and drinking water sources. Coal mining is polluting our water. Canada recently released draft regulations to limit pollution exiting coal mines, but instead of protecting fish and water, the proposed Coal Mining Effluent Regulations weaken existing protections under the Fisheries Act and permit the long-term contamination of downstream environments.
Mounting selenium pollution
Since 1998, the provincial government and the coal industry have been aware of selenium contamination occurring downstream of open-pit mines in the Elk Valley. By 2012, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) had launched an investigation into Teck Coal Limited (Teck) for violations under the Fisheries Act. This led to Teck’s conviction in 2021, which included a historic $60 million fine, Canada’s largest ever fine issued under the Fisheries Act.
While this has all been unfolding, the federal government has been developing new legislation that will regulate coal mine effluent in an effort to protect fish and water. The recently proposed Coal Mining Effluent Regulations are meant to regulate the release of selenium, nitrate, and total suspended solids into the environment, amongst other requirements. But instead of protecting fish and water, these draft regulations will authorize the release of harmful substances into the environment beyond what is currently permitted under the Fisheries Act.
ECCC concluded that selenium concentrations below the Fording River and Greenhills coal mines were harmful to fish. These same concentrations of selenium found to be harmful to fish by world-leading experts and ECCC are what is proposed within the Coal Mining Effluent Regulations, effectively permitting what led to the 2021 Fisheries Act violations.
“The estimated maximum annual loss of Westslope Cutthroat Trout embryos and fry … exceeds one million eight hundred thousand individuals per year due to selenium poisoning”
– Dr. Dennis Lemly on fish in the Elk Valley1
Proposed selenium concentrations for the Elk Valley in the draft regulations are set to 50 ug/L five years after coming into force, and 40 ug/L up to 15 years after coming into force. These concentrations come directly from the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, developed primarily by Teck, and allow for concentrations of selenium in drinking water sources to be well above the limit set by British Columbia’s Drinking Water Quality Guideline. Furthermore, experts concluded during the ECCC investigation that the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan was not protective of individual fish and built on erroneous contentions2
“In my opinion it is fundamentally flawed”
– Dr. Vince Palace on the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan3
The conclusions drawn from ECCC’s investigation speak for themselves4:
- Selenium and calcite were being deposited into the Upper Fording River, these deposits were harmful to fish and fish habitat and a detriment to fish and humans; and
- Reasonable measures consistent with public safety and the protection of fish, and fish habitat, were not taken.
“We cannot operate our Elk Valley coal mines in compliance with the Fisheries Act and its current associated regulations.”
– Teck Resources Limited Annual Information Form 20205
The current water pollution crisis in the Elk Valley could have been drastically improved if proper mine design and mitigation steps were taken at any stage in the past two decades. Experts in the ECCC investigation found that the primary source of selenium in the Elk Valley was external waste rock dumps6 These dumps are still rapidly expanding today at places like Kilmarnock Creek and Erickson Creek. Engineering solutions like geosynthetic covers could have also been built, but it was much cheaper to pay the fines for violating the Fisheries Act.
For those who are high consumers of fish in the region, expert opinion in the ECCC investigation7 found that consumption advisories should have begun in 1995 for the Upper Fording River, 2001 for the Lower Fording River, 2012 for the Elk River from its confluence with the Fording River to Sparwood, and 2021 for the Elk River from Sparwood to Elko.
With four new coal mines proposed in the Elk Valley, changes need to occur within the proposed Coal Mining Effluent Regulations that ensure the protection of fish and clean water. Now is the time for the federal government to stand up for clean water.
“At Teck Coal, water treatment is anticipated for hundreds of years.”8
This article only addresses Part II of the proposed Coal Mining Effluent Regulations, which sets regulations for the five existing coal mines in the Elk Valley (Fording River Operations, Greenhills Operations, Elkview Operations, Line Creek Operations, and Coal Mountain Operations). New mines proposed for the Elk Valley, except the Castle Mountain Mine (Fording River Expansion Project), will be regulated under Part I of the proposed Coal Mining Effluent Regulations. For more information, we recommend reading the draft regulations.
Bar Plot References:
- British Columbia Approved Water Quality Guidelines: Aquatic Life, Wildlife & Agriculture
- Source Drinking Water Quality Guidelines
- Proposed Coal Mining Effluent Regulations: overview
- Canada-B.C. Water Quality Monitoring Program: Elk River below Sparwood
- Report: 2020 Annual Report: Elk Valley Regional and Site-Specific Groundwater Monitoring Programs
- Teck Coal Limited Direction and Appendices File: 8000-2017-01-22-391610 (G) 5008-2010-06- 16-993 (N) 32. A. 10. Page 21.
- “The derived WQ Benchmarks that are proposed in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan and associated documents are unprecedented in terms of the allowable concentrations in water.” Teck Coal Limited Direction and Appendices File: 8000-2017-01-22-391610 (G) 5008-2010-06- 16-993 (N) Palace; 97. E. 2. Page 95.
- Teck Coal Limited Direction and Appendices File: 8000-2017-01-22-391610 (G) 5008-2010-06- 16-993 (N). Palace; 97. C. 1. Page 93.
- “Those deposits have been, and are, deleterious to fish and fish habitat, and have been shown to cause actual deleterious effects on fish and fish habitat. Detriment to fish and fish habitat, and to the use by humans of fish, results from the deposits and may be reasonably expected to result from the deposits. Teck Coal Limited has not taken all reasonable measures, consistent with public safety and the protection of fish, and fish habitat, as required by subsection 38(6) of the Fisheries Act.” Teck Coal Limited Direction and Appendices File: 8000-2017-01-22-391610 (G) 5008-2010-06- 16-993 (N). ECCC Conclusion; 107. Page 99.
- “.Teck Coal Limited Direction and Appendices File: 8000-2017-01-22-391610 (G) 5008-2010-06- 16-993 (N) Teck Quote; 106. C. Page 98.
- “External-pit dumps are primarily the source of selenium being released to the receiving environment,” and the “reduction or cessation of waste rock dumping would have prevented additional selenium loading and limited selenium concentrations in the tributaries and main stem of the Fording River … Teck Coal could have reduced selenium loadings and calcite precipitation impacting the Upper Fording River by actively and progressively reclaiming more waste rock dumps.”Teck Coal Limited Direction and Appendices File: 8000-2017-01-22-391610 (G) 5008-2010-06- 16-993 (N). Dr. Rina Freed; 94. Page 88-90
- Fish Consumption Advisories Dr. Peter Krahn; Appendix C. Page 283-285.
- André Sobolewski, Ph.D.; 89. H. Page 82.