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Teck Resources pled guilty Thursday to three violations of the federal Fisheries Act for polluting a tributary of the Elk River and was sentenced to pay a $1,425,000 penalty into the federal Environmental Damages Fund, which will help restore fish habitat in British Columbia’s Elk Valley.
On October 16, 2014, 45 dead fish were found in Line Creek near one of Teck’s five coal mines in the region. The following day, Environment Canada investigators found waste water from a Teck water treatment plant, put in place to deal with selenium pollution, was entering Line Creek, a tributary of Elk River.
Selenium is a naturally occurring chemical element, but it can be harmful in even very tiny amounts. Selenium pollution is produced by coal, uranium and bitumen extraction and is of growing concern in Canada.
The dead fish found by Environment Canada investigators included bull trout, a species of special concern in the region. The Fisheries Act prohibits the deposit of deleterious substances into water frequented by fish.
“This failure points to much larger, longer-term water pollution issues in the Elk Valley and the Kootenay River,” Robyn Duncan, executive director of Kootenay-based conservation group Wildsight, told DeSmog Canada.
“While much effort has gone into tackling the issue of dangerous selenium contamination running off from waste rock dumps at the Elk Valley coal mines, the problem is still far from solved.”
Teck’s $600 million water treatment plant had been in operation for four months at the time of the fish death and was meant to provide a solution to disturbingly high selenium levels responsible for fish deformities in cutthroat trout. At the time, Teck Resources said the fish deaths may have been related to the water treatment plant coming on line.
As a result of the charges, Teck Resources — the world’s second largest exporter of steel-making coal — is required to publish information about the conviction on its website and will be listed on the Environmental Offenders Registry. Teck produces roughly 70 per cent of Canada’s exported coal.
Robin Sheremeta, senior vice president of coal at Teck Resources said the company took “full responsibility” from the outset and “recognize that we need to do better.”
“Following this occurrence in 2014, we undertook a full investigation and implemented a number of steps to ensure this does not happen again,” Sheremeta said in a statement.
The Line Creek facility is currently in operation with special features to reduce selenium and nitrate in treated water, the company said.
This is not the first time Teck Resources has been in troubel for polluting water. In February 2016 Teck Metals Limited pled guilty to a number of charges related to polluting fish bearing waters, and was fined $3 million for violations of the Fisheries Act and a further $400,000 for B.C. Environmental Management Act offences.
The Elk River Valley, known for its massive coal deposits since the 1800s has had a long time problem with selenium. But it wasn’t until the expansion of major open-pit mining operations in the 1990s that selenium pollution reached concerning levels, according to Dennis Lemly research associate professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
In a 2014 report prepared for Environment Canada, Lemly warned selenium pollution levels were high enough to threaten a complete collapse of cutthroat trout in affected waterways.
Selenium causes abnormalities and reproductive loss in fish species, Lemly said, adding data he reviewed related to selenium in the Elk River and its tributaries showed deformities in westslope cutthroat trout. Fish eggs contaminated with selenium and hatched in an Environment Canada laboratory showed fish born with deformed jaws, skulls, fins and malformed gills.
Lemly’s analysis estimated more than180,000 fish die to selenium poisoning in the Elk River and its tributaries every year.
In a 2014 interview with the Globe and Mail, Lemly said selenium pollution is often overlooked.
“How bad does it have to get? Unfortunately, you have to have the ecological equivalent of a nuclear meltdown for people to stop and say, ‘Wait a minute. We are doing more harm than good,’ ” he said, referring to a two-headed baby trout found in selenium-tainted waters in Idaho.
“It’s not a question of knowing better, it’s a question of not wanting to know.”
The Elk River drains into two bodies of water shared by B.C. and Montana — Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River. In 2014 both were found to have high levels of selenium in the tissues of fish, causing concern among the conservation and fishing communities south of the border.
Tissue samples collected from seven species of fish in Lake Koocanusa between 2008 and 2013 showed increasing levels of selenium.
Clint Muhlfeld, an aquatic ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Glacier National Park field office, said selenium pollution entering the cross-border Kootenai River Basin is entering critical habitat of the westslope cutthroat and two endangered U.S. species: the endangered white sturgeon and bull trout.
“There are several indicators that the Elk River is nearing or has already exceeded a critical tipping point. Selenium is a ticking time bomb, and its effects are being realized all the way down the transboundary river system and into Lake Koocanusa,” Muhlfeld told the Flathead Beacon in 2014.
“This is an ecological catastrophe that is occurring, and it is not just isolated to the Elk. It is clearly impacting the entire system from the top down and it’s only going to get worse. It’s by far the biggest ecological threat facing the Northern Rocky Mountain ecosystem and the Crown of the Continent.”
Teck Resources is the top donor to the BC Liberal party, which governed B.C. from 2001 to 2017. Since 2008, the company gave $1.5 million to the party. The company also donated $60,000 to the B.C. NDP in that same period.
A 2016 report from B.C. auditor general Carol Bellringer expressed concern at permits granted to Teck Resources to expand its Line Creek Mine in the Elk Valley.
Staff at the Ministry of Environment refused to issue permits after they found an expansion of the mine would exacerbate selenium pollution problems.
Cabinet stepped in, overriding ministerial staff, and granted a permit for the expansion invoking, for the first time in B.C. history, section 137 of the Environmental Management Act, which allows government to introduce waste into the environment if deemed in the public interest.
The permit was granted despite the fact that the Line Creek Expansion Permit had “a site performance objective for selenium that allows five times the amount set in B.C.’s water quality guidelines for aquatic fish.”
The auditor general found the B.C. government, in granting the permit, did not publicly disclose the implications these permit levels will have in this area. The permit extended the life of the mine for an additional 18 years, to produce an additional 3.5 million tonnes of coal annually.
Although the Ministry of Environment charged Teck Resources an annual fee of $5,000 for selenium pollution, the auditor general found, “this is not reflective of the known environmental impact of selenium.”
According to Andrew Gage, staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law, Teck appears to have benefitted from a slackening regulatory environment in B.C.
In an analysis of Teck Resources’ environmental infractions, Gage and his colleagues found the company was often spared punishment for violating environmental rules.
In 2015, for example, Teck Coal Ltd. was inspected 58 times, and was found to be acting illegally 79 per cent of the time.
For the vast majority of those inspections (89 per cent), Teck was simply issued an advisory or written warning by Ministry of Environment staff.
Gage found only five incidents in which Teck was referred for further action but no record of that action was made available on the Ministry of Environment’s website.
Over the 10-year period between 2006 and the beginning of 2016, Teck Coal Ltd. received four fines for environmental infractions, for $575 a piece.
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