Dangerous waters & empty promises: Teck’s Fording coal mine expansion

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Posted in:  Conservation, Featured

Just downstream of Teck’s 50-square-kilometre Fording River coal mine, cutthroat trout swim in heavily polluted waters. This isolated population of trout, federally listed as a species at risk, recently collapsed, with more than 90% of adult fish gone in just two years. Now, Teck has applied to expand the Fording River mine onto Castle Mountain, adding more than 25 square kilometres of mountain-top removal mining over the next few decades—and thousands of years of water pollution to a river that is already on the brink.

BC’s Environmental Assessment process for the mine has begun, but if we’ve learned anything over the past decade in the Elk Valley, it’s that when Teck wants something, BC gives it to them. When Teck wanted to expand the nearby Line Creek mine, the Ministry of Environment said they couldn’t issue the permit because of water pollution and the threat to fish—and BC’s cabinet overruled staff and issued the permit anyways.1. For years, Teck has polluted well above their limits, which are already far beyond pollution levels considered safe for fish—and BC hasn’t made any moves to enforce those limits. Last year, Teck released a long-term plan announcing they will continue to pollute above limits for years—and BC still did nothing. 2

Westslope cutthroat troue. Photo and header photo of juvenile cutthroat trout: Michael J Ready, ILCP.

This time, BC needs to hear loud and clear that more of the same—more pollution, more dead fish and more empty promises—is more than our rivers and fish can bear. Fortunately, the new provincial environmental assessment process now allows for more public input. Your first opportunities to be heard are by making a comment on the Environmental Assessment of the project.

The Fording River mine, the largest of Teck’s Elk Valley coal mines, sits right on top of the upper Fording River. The highest levels of water pollution found in the Elk Valley are found just downstream of the Fording River mine. Castle Mountain, which is right beside the existing mine, would only add more water pollution to this same stretch of river, putting fish in danger not just in the Fording River, but also downstream in the Elk River and even in Lake Koocanusa. Despite all the rosy press releases and statements from Teck, the facts on the ground are simple: more mining means more waste rock piles, more waste rock piles means more water pollution, leaching from the rock for thousands of years.
Teck attempted to use water treatment plants but ran into difficulties that has delayed their construction for years, and the technology proved very expensive. Now, Teck says that they want to use a new technology called Saturated Rocks Fills to remove selenium from water flowing out of their waste rock dumps. Even if this unproven technology works, which is an open question as most of the information about it is secret, any treatment plan that requires constant pumping, feeding and monitoring can’t solve the long term water pollution problem a thousand years in the future and won’t reduce calcite, nickel or any of the other long-term pollution that flows from the mines.

Polluted water at the Elk Valley coal mines. Photo: Garth Lenz, ILCP.

In the section of the Fording River that runs alongside the proposed Castle expansion, the isolated population of westslope cutthroat trout suffered a devastating collapse that was just discovered last fall. With 90% of the adult trout gone and a decline of more than 70% in juvenile trout, adding more pollution to the upper Fording River risks wiping these fish out, making it a sacrifice zone for the mines. With many kilometres of tributaries of the Fording River already sacrificed to the mines, rivers and streams that are poisoned for thousands of years are not just a risk in the Elk Valley, they are already the reality.

Water pollution from the Castle mine expansion will flow downstream into the Elk River, joining pollution from Teck’s four other mines and potentially three other new mines from other companies that are also in the Environmental Assessment process. All of this water pollution combined together is dangerous for fish not just in the Elk River, but also in the border-spanning Koocanusa Reservoir, where the still water of the large reservoir allows selenium to build up in sediments and the food chain, and downstream in the Kootenai River, threatening fish from the smallest minnows all the way up to the huge endangered white sturgeon. Water pollution in Koocanusa Reservoir is the source of growing conflict between BC and the US, not to mention First Nations. Our own clean water and fish are reason enough to stop Teck from adding more long-term water pollution to the watershed, but we should also be good neighbours and at least stop increasing the amount of water pollution we send across the border.

The Castle mine expansion wouldn’t just pollute our rivers and kill fish, it would also destroy a large area of endangered high-elevation grasslands in the Rocky Mountains, the winter home for bighorn sheep.

It’s time to say no to any new coal mines and major mine expansions in the Elk Valley. Trout in the Fording River have been decimated and fish further downstream could soon be next. Despite years of research, Teck is no closer to a real solution that will stop water pollution for thousands of years. Adding a few more decades of coal mining is just going to add more and more water pollution to our already heavily polluted rivers. Teck and BC have dug themselves into a big hole in the Elk Valley. It’s time to stop digging.

Please speak up for clean water and trout today.

 

  1. As investigated by BC’s Auditor General.
  2. The 2019 Implementation Plan Amendment, discussed here.