Proposed Crown Mountain coal mine could fan the flames of selenium crisis

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Photo: Garth Lenz / ILCP RAVE

NWP Coal Canada is forging ahead with its plans to build a new metallurgical coal mine in British Columbia’s Elk Valley, a region already plagued with the fallout from an international water pollution crisis. 

In January, the proposed Crown Mountain mine passed another stage of review with provincial and federal governments, and it has now entered the public feedback period of the process. At the same time, Canada and B.C. are headed towards an international investigation into the selenium contamination of waterways due to toxic runoff from the Elk Valley’s existing Teck-owned coal mines. 

Given there’s currently no proven way to entirely stop selenium from leaching out of coal mine waste rock piles and into our waterways, we must use this public feedback period to tell the government and NWP Coal that we cannot risk worsening an already dire environmental and human health crisis with another Elk Valley coal mine. 

What you need to know about the Crown Mountain coal mine

First proposed in 2014, the Crown Mountain coal mine would cover 1,280 hectares between the communities of Sparwood and Elkford, in between the existing Teck-operated Elkview and Line Creek mines. 

It would produce on average 2 million tonnes of metallurgical coal (used for steelmaking) a year for around 15 years from three open pits. For such a short lifespan, this mine would have an irreversible impact on water quality.

Selenium is a naturally-occurring mineral that is critical to human health in small quantities, but toxic to both humans and aquatic ecosystems alike in higher doses. 

The vast piles of waste rock produced through mountaintop removal coal mining in the Elk Valley have dramatically increased the amount of selenium leaching into the Fording and Elk rivers. A recent US Geological Survey report found that selenium concentrations have more than quadrupled over the past 38 years. These waters flow through communities such as Fernie, into Lake Koocanusa on the Canadian-US border, and down into Montana and Idaho. 

Waste rock visible in an existing Teck-owned mountaintop removal coal mine, near Sparwood, Elk Valley. Photo by Garth Lenz / ILCP RAVE

In 2022, selenium levels 267 times higher than what’s considered safe for aquatic life were detected in waters directly affected by Teck’s Elk Valley mines. In December 2023, the City of Fernie began searching for a new backup water supply after selenium levels in its current secondary source, the James White Wells, exceeded B.C.’s Water Quality Guidelines earlier in the year.

NWP Coal has projected its operation would release less selenium into the environment than Teck’s mines, due in large part to its smaller footprint coupled with a ‘dry’ storage method for its tailings. 

Speaking at a Coal Association of Canada conference in 2022, the company even went so far as to claim it wouldn’t let any selenium get into local waterways, a statement that is at odds with the company’s own official projections.

While it’s true that modern mine design and water treatment methods can reduce the amount of selenium released into waterways, they’re not yet advanced enough to entirely eliminate runoff. Until existing cumulative effects can be resolved, we cannot add anymore selenium into the system. 

A threat to fish and endangered trees

The potential impacts of the Crown Mountain mine don’t end with the waterways. The mine’s construction would result in the destruction of 550 hectares of whitebark pine habitat, including trees of unusually large size and good health. 

The slow-growing whitebark pine has the unenviable title of being the only tree in western Canada on the federal endangered species list. Between climate change, deforestation, the mountain pine beetle and an invasive fungus called blister rust, the tree has suffered widespread declines and faces a grim future.

Whitebark pine is a keystone species, meaning that it holds an entire ecosystem in balance. Its nutrient-rich seeds provide food for grizzly bears, black bears and a bird called the Clark’s nutcracker. 

The mine would also almost entirely destroy West Alexander Creek, which is known habitat for a unique sub-population of the westslope cutthroat trout. 

This short-term mining project will have long term and irreversible impacts on water quality, ecosystems and threatened wildlife. We cannot allow such a proposal to move forward any further; it is vital that we use the current opportunity for public feedback to make our concerns heard.

An endangered whitebark pine tree in the Elk Valley.

Learn more and submit your feedback

The public can comment on the proposed Crown Mountain mine online until midnight on Feb 28. Read Wildsight’s submission here. To submit your own feedback, visit

In addition, government regulators and NWP Coal Canada are hosting the following public information sessions:

  • 4-7pm, Tues Feb 20, Crowsnest Pass Golf Course, Crowsnest Pass (hosted by NWP Coal Canada)
  • 5-7pm, Wed Feb 21, virtual meeting — participants must register on Zoom (hosted by government regulators)
  • 4-7pm, Mon Feb 26, Senior Citizens Drop-in Center, Fernie (hosted by NWP Coal Canada)