Teck coal sale highlights water quality costs

Photo: Garth Lenz / ILCP RAVE

In 2022, Teck profited a staggering $6.4 billion from their steelmaking coal mines in southeast BC’s Elk Valley, making up 60% of Teck’s total global revenue. Teck’s coal profits in 2022 doubled from the previous year, making the announcement earlier this week that Teck agreed to sell the entirety of its coal assets for over $8 billion an interesting one. Given that coal profits from these mines could potentially pay for this sale price in less than two years, why would Teck want to sell its biggest cash cow, and at such an apparent discount?

Glencore, the Swiss mining conglomerate that recently paid $1.1 billion to the US government to settle corruption charges, is set to purchase the lion’s share of Teck’s coal assets. Glencore also has the dubious honour of operating some of the coal mines in Columbia where intense paramilitary violence has led to the development of the term “blood coal”. These factors, as well as Glencore’s long legacy of major environmental violations and human rights abuses, raise concerns for this shift in ownership. The deal is currently set to undergo review by the Canadian federal government under the Investments Canada Act.

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

Teck has struggled with water pollution problems resulting from coal mining operations in the Elk Valley for many years, and has spent over $1.2 billion on water pollution mitigation measures in hopes of addressing the issue. Despite this investment, waters in the Elk Valley continue to have high levels of selenium and other pollutants, resulting in impacts to fish populations as well as contamination of municipal and private groundwater supplies. Decades of outrage from Indigenous Nations regarding this pollution have recently gained international political traction, with a promise for resolution being given earlier this year in a joint statement from Prime Minister Trudeau and US President Biden. Increasing environmental costs and loss of reputation given consistent failure to remediate waters is likely driving Teck to try to sell off all its coal assets.

Money for cleanup must be a top priority before any transfer of ownership takes place. Adequate funds must be held to cover the full costs of reclamation including water quality so Canadian taxpayers aren’t left holding the bill. For example, $10 million of public money was used to build BC’s Brittania water treatment plant after decades of acid rock drainage into the waters of Howe Sound, just north of Vancouver. Another very pertinent example comes from BC’s Babine Lake, where Glencore itself owns two decommissioned mines that continue to leach heavy metals directly into the lake. The pattern of mining companies sucking the last few years of profits out of their operations and then proceeding to walk away from their environmental and community responsibilities under bankruptcy protection is seen far too often, and it is vital we not allow this to occur in the Elk Valley. 

Fording Coal’s “Greenhills” Mountop removal coal mine, near Elkford, Elk Valley, B.C. beside the Flathead Valley.

The vast majority of coal produced in the Elk Valley is used in steelmaking. Traditional steelmaking blast furnaces use large quantities of coal, and are estimated to produce around 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Methods of making steel without the use of coal are becoming more widespread however, and are projected to become more competitive in the coming decades as the world continues to try to reduce emissions.

Regardless of the outcome of the federal review of the sale, it is important that we hold industry accountable and continue to push towards responsible environmental practices. On November 9th, the Ktunaxa Nation hosted a discussion between Indigenous, Canadian, and US officials aimed at moving towards a resolution to the water quality issues seen in the Elk and Kootenay rivers. Public support for the Ktunaxa Nation as they continue to fight for the protection of the land and water in the Elk Valley is vital if we wish to live as part of a healthy ecosystem and protect all living things here in the Kootenays.

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Mining makes up one of British Columbia’s largest industries and revenue sources, but behind the profits, communities and the environment often pay the price…Learn more