Teck Water Quality Plan Approved

Coal mine to control contaminants from mining operations in British Columbia’s Elk Valley

By Tristan Scott

The British Columbia government has approved a plan to address decades of coal-mining pollution in southeastern B.C.’s Elk River drainage, located upstream from one of Montana’s world-class transboundary watersheds, where researchers have confirmed the presence of mining contaminants leaching across borders from the upstream coalmines.

The Elk Valley Water Quality Plan was crafted by Teck Resources Ltd. to control selenium and nitrate dumped into the Elk River and nearby tributaries as the mining giant expanded through the years. With renewed plans to expand coal-mining operations, researchers and government agencies intensified scrutiny on environmental hazards spanning the border.

The concerns that led to development of the water quality plan center on increasing amounts of coal waste byproducts leaching into the heavily mined Elk River and its many tributaries, which drain into two bodies of water shared by B.C. and Montana – Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River – both of which are showing increased levels of mining contaminants like selenium in the muscle tissue of fish species.

In 2013, the B.C. government ordered Teck Coal to address the issue of contaminants in the Elk River drainage, resulting in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan and Technical Advisory Committee. The committee was comprised of leading scientists from provincial, state and both Canadian and U.S. federal governments, along with Teck’s staff and contractors. Representatives of the Ktunaxa Nation were also at the forefront of the committee, and the plan is under review by the provincial government.

The water treatment plan will control selenium an

All five Teck mines are open-pit, truck and shovel mines. As part of the water quality plan, Teck opened the first of six water treatment plants, a $120 million treatment plant called the West Line Creek Water Treatment Facility, to remove a metal-like element called selenium and other contaminants from Line Creek.

The facility has been taken off line temporarily while the company investigates a fish kill downstream from the plant.

Previous estimates contemplated total capital spending of approximately $600 million over a five-year period on the installation of water diversions and water treatment facilities, including the $120 million already invested in Line Creek. Teck is reviewing its estimate of the capital and operating costs based on the approved plan and intends to provide an update at the end of the year.

There are currently five coal mines in the Elk River Valley that are causing toxic pollution, all of which have launched expansion proposals that are in the exploration, permitting or development stage. Operated by Teck Coal Limited, the world’s second-largest exporter of metallurgical coal, the mines produce approximately 70 percent of Canada’s total annual coal exports, and directly employ more than 4,500 full-time workers.

John Bergenske, the director of Wildsight Conservation, a group that has been critical of the mining activities and degradation of water quality, said the plan was a welcome step.

“We’re past the stage of simply identifying a problem,” Bergenske said. “Teck recognizes the issues and is taking responsibility to improve water quality in the Elk River. I am confident that success is possible, but only with ongoing monitoring and adapting new strategies as more information becomes available. This problem took decades to reach the critical point we are now at, but the negative trend in water quality has to be reversed right away. Teck is the only one in a position to do this effectively over time.”

Wildsight participated in public and Technical Advisory Committee meetings that led to recommendations to the Minister of Environment.

“The serious concern over the health of fish and other organisms in the Elk River are not going to go away, but there is increased confidence that Teck’s commitment to both water treatment facilities and long-term plans will lead to a reduction in the levels of selenium and other toxins in the river,” Bergenske said.

Local researchers and agency officials expressed disappointment with the plan because it does not take pay serious consideration to the degradation of downstream waters in Montana.

Julie DalSoglio of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Montana office said the most glaring issue she saw with the Technical Advisory Committee’s Elk Valley Water Quality Plan was the omission of Lake Koocanusa from its purview.

“Their modeling did not include the Koocanusa Reservoir, and that was unfortunate because that was the biggest reason that we were at the table,” she said of Montana’s role on the Technical Advisory Committee. “We’d like to focus broader research efforts there.”

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