Report reveals Elk Valley’s $6.4 billion water pollution problem

Photo: The Greenhills Mountaintop removal coal mine, near Elkford, Elk Valley, B.C. Photo by Garth Lenz / ILCP RAVE

A new Wildsight-commissioned report has revealed it will cost at least $6.4 billion to reverse rising selenium concentrations in Canadian and United States waterways due to toxic runoff from British Columbia’s Elk Valley coal mines.

Selenium contamination from the Teck-owned mines has been a topic of increasing concern over the past decade, with concentrations consistently breaching both B.C. and Montana’s water quality standards. The Transboundary Ktunaxa have consistently called for greater protections and remediation in these waterways, with limited success. Their efforts were rewarded recently with the announcement of an investigation into the selenium issue by the International Joint Commission.

The report, which was completed by independent consulting firm Burgess Environmental Ltd, calculates what it will cost to treat half of the selenium-contaminated water coming from Teck’s Elk Valley mines over the next 60 years, as per Teck’s 2023 water treatment plan.

The report’s findings are particularly concerning because they put the cost of cleaning up selenium pollution far higher than what we’ve previously been led to believe based on Teck’s $1.9 billion reclamation security. This could mean taxpayers are left to foot a multi-billion-dollar bill if the owner of these mines ever goes under. 

Water from the Elk Valley feeds into Lake Koocanusa, which straddles the Canadian-U.S. border. Photo by Tony Webster

What is a ‘reclamation security’?

A reclamation security is a financial assurance, often referred to as a bond, that mining companies must provide to the province to cover environmental reclamation and remediation costs in case of emergency. It is designed to ensure the financial burden associated with clean-up costs falls on industry rather than taxpayers.

Reclamation security amounts should cover everything from land reclamation to groundwater remediation, treatment of water contaminants such as selenium, sulfates, nitrates, nickel and heavy metals, as well as ongoing monitoring. 

Wildsight’s report calculates only the cost of remediating part of the selenium contamination in the Kootenay/ai watershed; the true cost of cleaning up environmental damage from Teck’s Elk Valley mines would be far greater than $6.4 billion if you consider other reclamation processes that will have to be done, such as land reforming, revegetation, biodiversity promises, aquifer remediation, and water quality concerns other than selenium.  

Teck has already spent over $1.4 billion on water treatment outside of this reclamation security structure, and promises to spend more moving forward. However, this promise effectively bypasses the purpose of the policy, which is to provide incentive for miners to progressively work on reclamation as they mine and minimize long-term damage to the environment. Avoiding the spirit of this policy gives the province little leverage to force Teck to build its promised infrastructure, leading to our current situation where treatment capacity building is behind schedule and selenium levels continue to rise. By convincing the province to allow them to work outside of the bonding policy, Teck has weakened B.C.’s ability to enforce, regulate and incentivize proper reclamation activities.

Will $6.4 billion be enough to reverse rising selenium concentrations?

A recent study found that over the past 38 years, selenium concentrations have more than quadrupled in the Kootenay/ai watershed, with levels regularly exceeding those considered safe for aquatic life and human health. The watershed includes communities such as the B.C. city of Fernie, Lake Koocanusa on the Canadian-United States border, and water courses flowing through Montana and Idaho.

Teck’s current strategy, which this report’s calculations are based on, is to reduce selenium concentrations by building water treatment plants up to 2027 and operating them for 60 years. But there’s no guarantee that’ll be enough. Moving forward, more and more waste rock will be produced, leading to more selenium being released, possibly requiring even more water treatment facilities. Teck has also reportedly experimented with passive selenium management practices outside of treatment facilities, but little information is publicly available. As mining continues, water pollution is going to continue to rise. A lack of transparency and leniency in the bond estimation process has led to these mines being severely underbonded, avoiding the purpose of this system and leaving the public with little to do but hope that the owner of these coal mines will do the right thing.

Teck’s Greenhills coal mine in the Elk Valley. Photo by Garth Lenz / ILCP RAVE

What does this mean for Teck’s sale to Glencore?

This report comes as Teck prepares to sell a majority stake of its Elk Valley coal mines to Swiss mining giant Glencore, which has publicly declared its intention to spin off its coal assets within two years. The Canadian government is currently reviewing the proposed sale under the Investment Canada Act, but is not expected to outright reject the proposal. The decision by the feds to allow or add conditions to this deal is expected in Q3 or Q4 of this year, and will have enormous consequences for the Elk Valley and everyone downstream.

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