Guest Column

We Need Long-term Solutions to Selenium Crisis

The bottom line is that Teck’s water treatment plan isn’t working to keep our shared water clean and our shared fish safe in the long-term

A senior Teck representative wrote to the Beacon on June 21 regarding your article “B.C. Border States Urge Action on Transboundary Coal Pollution,” claiming to set the record straight on the selenium pollution flowing across the border in Lake Koocanusa. While the letter claims to add facts and correct misleading information, it only muddies the waters.

Wildsight is an environmental organization in southeastern British Columbia. We’ve been working on the coal mining water pollution crisis for many years. We’re deeply disappointed that our province allows this toxic pollution into our shared Lake Koocanusa. But what’s more frightening is that waste rock dumps at the Elk Valley coal mines will pollute our rivers for centuries and no one has a long-term plan to stop it.

No one disagrees that Teck is taking some short-term steps to try to treat the water pollution coming from the mines, but these efforts have been halting. The hard truth is that Teck isn’t meeting their pollution limits in the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan (EVWQP). Pollution levels in Lake Koocanusa are still increasing and will keep increasing for years.

But what’s even worse is that the EVWQP is entirely based on expensive, unproven water treatment plants. Even if Teck manages to build enough water treatment plants in the next few years, these plants are just a band-aid, hiding the real long-term problem. Pollution from the waste rock dumps will keep flowing long after Teck stops mining and Teck isn’t going to run expensive water treatment plants for a thousand years. Once the plants stop working, there will be more selenium in Lake Koocanusa than there has ever been. Focusing on water treatment plants only delays real change.

The only long-term solution is to change the construction of waste rock dumps to keep selenium out of our rivers. But despite decades of meetings, studies and press releases, this kind of long-term solution hasn’t been put on the table – because it would cost more than water treatment.

Right now, research shows that fish are being harmed by selenium pollution, with significant numbers of fish in Koocanusa showing dangerous concentrations of the toxin in their bodies. Teck claims that even though some fish can’t reproduce, overall fish populations aren’t being harmed. But this very strong claim is based on limited or non-existent baseline data. Wildsight – and many others, including U.S.-based scientists – doesn’t share Teck’s optimism, especially as pollution levels continue to increase. By the time we have clear, unequivocal evidence that fish populations rather than individual fish are being harmed, it may well be too late.

The bottom line is that Teck’s water treatment plan isn’t working to keep our shared water clean and our shared fish safe in the long-term. The B.C. government needs to enforce the Water Quality Plan immediately and find real long-term solutions to the selenium pollution crisis. They haven’t listened to British Columbians telling them to clean up our rivers; let’s hope that the eight senators from our neighboring states can help push B.C. to clean up its act.

Lars Sander-Green is the science and communications analyst at Wildsight.