Last week the Canadian government charged Teck Resources with three environmental violations after 74 fish were killed near the mining company’s treatment facility in British Columbia’s Elk Valley north of Montana, elevating concerns over contaminants entering transboundary waterways.
The fish were found dead in late 2014 and an investigation determined they died from nitrite poisoning and low dissolved oxygen levels in the water. The deaths occurred near one of Teck’s open-pit coal mines and treatment facility.
The charges followed an investigation by the company.
“At Teck, we take all environmental issues very seriously. We are committed to working to improve our environmental performance and achieve the objectives for water quality improvements outlined in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan,” Nic Milligan, Teck Coal’s manager, community and aboriginal affairs, told the East Kootenay News Online Weekly.
The charges prompted the Flathead Wild Coalition, a collective of six Canadian and U.S. conservation groups, to ask the Canadian government to halt the company’s proposed new coal mines in the region. Teck, the Vancouver-based global mining giant that operates five world-class steelmaking coal mines across the border from Montana, has received government approval for expanding four of its five open-pit coal mines in the Elk Valley. Other companies are proposing three new mines in the region amid ongoing exploration.
“Teck must do more to make sure selenium levels downstream of waste rock dumps are safe for fish,” said Ryland Nelson, Wildsight’s Southern Rockies program manager. “We hope Environment Canada will continue their enforcement actions to push Teck to fix their water pollution problems.”
He added, “Without a proven, reliable selenium treatment method, increased mining in the area is unthinkable.”
Concerns center on increasing amounts of coal waste byproducts leaching into the heavily mined Elk River drainage and its many tributaries, which lead into two bodies of water shared by B.C. and Montana – Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. In 2014, Montana Department of Environmental Quality and U.S Geological Survey officials found increased levels of contamination in Lake Koocanusa, including selenium, nitrates, sedimentation, and other impairments associated with coal mining in Canada. The detection of contaminants has fueled heavy scrutiny from conservation groups, tribal leaders and U.S. lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Selenium is a naturally occurring element in sedimentary rocks and coal and can be toxic to fish at elevated levels, which are exacerbated by mining operations and the accumulation of waste rock, according to the EPA.
“Excessive selenium levels, which have been found in fish tissue on both sides of the border, threaten reproduction and cause spinal and gill deformations in trout and other fish species,” said Ric Hauer, professor of limnology at the University of Montana. “Absent effective treatment, selenium is expected to continue leaching from waste rock dumps for generations.”
“The BC government must step up and do much more to defend clean water and the world-class wildlife connectivity and habitat in the region, instead of just approving more and more mining,” said Candace Batycki of Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
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