The Canadian government will undertake an environmental review of Teck Resources’ Castle Mountain coal mine, a decision that comes after several environmental organizations, Indigenous groups and U.S. government agencies called for federal involvement in the project.
Wednesday’s announcement of a federal assessment follows the release of new U.S. Geological Survey research, which local environmental organization Wildsight says suggests British Columbia may need more stringent guidelines for selenium pollution to safely protect fish in a lake that spans the border with Montana.
As Teck plans to expand its coal mining operations in the Kootenays, the new U.S. report was seen by critics as further reason for Ottawa to undertake a federal impact assessment of the company’s Castle Mountain project.
For years, environmental groups have been ringing alarm bells over selenium pollution from Teck coal mines and, in particular, the risks to aquatic life. High concentrations of the element have been found to cause deformities and reproductive failure in fish.
Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister Jonathan Wilkinson considered “the potential for the proposed project to cause adverse effects within areas of federal jurisdiction, as well as cumulative effects in the Elk Valley and across provincial and national borders, in particular to fish, fish habitat, species at risk and Indigenous peoples,” Moira Kelly, a spokesperson for the minister, said in a statement.
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“We thank Minister Wilkinson for making the right decision to order a federal assessment for the Castle coal mine,” said Lars Sander-Green, a science and communications analyst focused on mining at Wildsight, in a statement.
“Castle would take down an entire mountain, could send dangerous water pollution hundreds of kilometres downstream and cut off travel routes for bears and other wildlife,” he said.
“With Teck’s five existing mines in the Elk Valley and decades of mining already permitted, we desperately need a real assessment of the overall impacts from so much mountain-top removal coal mining in one valley.”
While Castle Mountain is already undergoing a provincial review, Sander-Green said last week he had “very little confidence” the B.C. process would result in anything other than approval of the project.
Taseko’s Prosperity mine in Tsilhqot’in territory turned into a 12-year saga after the mine was approved by the provincial government, despite being rejected twice by the federal government. Earlier this spring the Supreme Court denied the company leave to appeal the federal government’s rejection of the project.
Teck spokesperson Chad Pederson called the federal decision “unfortunate,” noting in a statement that the project was already going through a “rigorous provincial environmental review process.”
“We are hopeful that the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada will focus on a timely assessment that is fair and efficient,” he said.
B.C. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman also raised the issue of timelines in a statement on Wednesday.
“The Environmental Assessment Office has been engaging fully with the federal government and will coordinate its involvement in B.C.’s new [assessment] process for both timeliness and effectiveness,” Heyman said. “I appreciate that they understand and have committed to working within provincial timelines while they review matters of federal jurisdiction, such as trans-border issues.”
Kelly said the federal government “believes firmly in the principle of ‘one project, one review.’ To that end, the Impact Assessment Agency will cooperate closely with the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office to ensure a timely and predictable process.”
The Castle Mountain project is billed as an expansion of Teck Resources’ Fording River mine and as such was not automatically subject to a federal review.
But in his decision, Wilkinson stated that some concerns about the project — including “effects to transboundary environments, fish and fish habitat, and Indigenous peoples” — fall under federal jurisdiction or may not be fully addressed by the provincial environmental assessment or through project permitting.
In its analysis report, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada said the Castle Mountain project “would be the largest coal mine in B.C. and one of the largest in Canada” and “has a high likelihood to cause direct and cumulative effects to areas of federal jurisdiction.”
According to Teck Resources’ project description, steelmaking coal from Castle Mountain, which is still in the design phase, would be processed at its Fording River operations for several decades.
Concerns over selenium pollution from Teck’s mines
The recently published research from the U.S. Geological Survey suggests B.C. may need tougher guidelines, Sander-Green said.
The goal of the new report, which was posted online earlier this month, was to model the potential for selenium exposure and bioaccumulation in the Lake Koocanusa ecosystem to inform the development of selenium guidelines specific to the cross-border reservoir.
Sander-Green said the modelling work shows “that in order to keep fish in the reservoir safe, we need a much lower selenium pollution limit than the one B.C. has and much lower than the numbers that we’ve already seen.”
Selenium levels measured in the Elk River 3.5 kilometres upstream from where it flows into Lake Koocanusa have exceeded B.C. guidelines of 2 parts per billion (ppb) since 1993, according to the U.S. report.
Experts from the B.C. and Montana governments as well as technical representatives from First Nations, U.S. tribes, industry and environmental organizations, which are all part of a cross-border working group focused on monitoring and research in the Lake Koocanusa watershed, are now reviewing the modelling information in the new U.S. Geological Survey report, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said in a statement.
“For the past few years the working group has been focused on reviewing selenium guidelines for Koocanusa Reservoir, which led to the development of the USGS modelling report and supporting materials,” the statement said.
“The modelling and report will be used to inform a selenium value for the Lake Koocanusa water quality objective. A public comment period on a draft selenium water quality objective for Lake Koocanusa will proceed in the fall.”
Meanwhile, Teck Resources says it is making “significant progress towards achieving the objectives of the Elk Valley water quality plan.” Spokesperson Chris Stannell said the initiative takes into account Teck’s development plans over the next 20 years, including the Castle Mountain project.
He noted Teck’s first water treatment facility at its Line Creek operations is treating up to 7.5 million litres of water today and the company is seeing lower selenium concentrations downstream. Another facility is treating upto 10 million litres of water affected by the mine at the company’s Elkview operations and the company is working to double its treatment capacity. He also said Teck is building two more water treatment facilities at its Fording River operations.
“In 2021, we expect to have capacity to treat up to 47.5 million litres per day, and we expect significant reductions of selenium and nitrate in the watershed as a result,” he said.
But Sander-Green said selenium pollution will continue to flow from mine waste rock for centuries to come. Teck’s “hideously expensive” water treatment plants are not a long-term solution, he added.
First Nations, U.S. tribes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Montana and a number of environmental groups had all called on Wilkinson to designate the project for a federal assessment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency noted in a letter to the president of the Impact Assessment Agency that “the project has the potential to cause adverse effects, including impacts to the environment both inside and outside Canada.”
“Direct and cumulative impacts from coal mining in the Elk Valley have resulted in documented impacts to Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River water quality, fish, and fish habitat in the U.S.” the letter says.
The agency also expressed concern that new projects would increase pollution in the lake and river.
In a May letter to Wilkinson, meanwhile, the Tribal Councils of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho wrote that a federal review of the project is needed to ensure consideration of “on-going and future mining contamination to water quality, fish, wildlife, and traditional cultural uses by our Nations.”
The letter also raised concerns about a “lack of demonstrated, successful technology to mitigate mining contamination and reduce risks to water quality and aquatic life.”
“For many years, the province of B.C., state of Montana and Teck mining company have separately and at times collectively promised to fix existing problems and for as many years have failed to yield improvements to water quality and stop degradation of water and the fish, wildlife, and human uses dependent on Teck’s and B.C.’s effluent into the U.S.,” the letter said.