Bad neighbours, bad leadership: Mining chaos in the Elk River Valley
November 30, 2017
Are we letting Teck sacrifice the future of the Elk River to centuries of toxic coal mining pollution?
Teck Resources, Canada’s largest mining corporation, recently announced the shutdown of a vital water treatment facility in the southern Rockies. The facility was designed to remove toxic levels of selenium from water flowing out of mine waste dumps into the Elk River.
Teck has applied for permission to shut down the plant because it turned out to be releasing an even more toxic form of selenium into the water than previously existed. Talk about a major failure—with a heaping dose of sad irony and an end result of fish that can’t reproduce because of toxic selenium building up in their organs.
This week in Victoria, Sierra Club BC and the Flathead Wild Coalition hosted The Living Watershed – a conversation between community leaders, ecologists, activists and policy makers on pollution and water protection in the southern Rockies.
The speakers explained how selenium leaches from waste rock dumps at Teck’s Elk Valley coal mines and is then taken up by fish, birds and amphibians in concentrations that can prevent reproduction and cause birth defects. This problem has been known about since at least the early 1990s, but very little effort has been made by the provincial government to address the problem.
Selenium levels have risen steadily to the point that they now far exceed regulatory limits and people fishing on the river are finding deformities in trout. This problem will only grow and worsen in the coming decades—with environmental impacts that could last for centuries—unless significant action is taken now.
Please tell the BC government you expect no coal mining expansion in the Elk Valley until pollution is brought under control:
During the event, researchers Erin Sexton of the University of Montana and Helmi Hess of Environment and Climate Change Canada presented the shocking results of selenium field sampling projects and decades of research experience in the area. University of Victoria POLIS Water Sustainability Project research coordinator Rosie Simms spoke to the history of lousy water regulations in BC and potential opportunities to improve the management of our most valuable resource.
The Elk Valley is a troubling example of nineteenth century watershed management. Solutions to the mining chaos in the valley are awfully complex and, at the same time, extremely urgent.
Teck is now listed as an Environmental Offender and it is clear they cannot meet their mandated commitments. Efforts by the province have resulted in little to no progress and government leadership to address the regulatory gaps has been lacking.
Instead, several new mines are now being entertained by the provincial government that could further compound selenium pollution in the Elk River.
The same day we hosted our talk, Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Jon Tester of Montana called upon US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to ramp up pressure to address the impacts of selenium pollution in waterways that cross the US-Canada border. Selenium concentrations in Lake Koocanusa are now reaching threshold levels for enforcement action. They are calling for a stronger framework to protect transboundary water systems and have asked for a bilateral standard to protect Montana’s water quality needs from the reckless BC mining sector.
You know things have gotten really bad when one of the world’s leading climate villains is being asked to scold BC for polluting rivers with toxic mine waste.
Existing waste rock dumps will leach selenium for centuries—far longer than treatment plants can be expected to operate. Teck can’t keep piling up more selenium-leaching waste rock while chasing short term solutions.
We support the Ktunaxa Nation’s call—along with the US Kootenai tribes—for a binational commission with the US and Indigenous governments to end the toxic destruction of these shared rivers.
Until we have a long term solution, no new mining or mine expansion proposals should be considered in the Elk Valley. We need a complete freeze on the Environmental Assessment process for new minds in the valley until this chaos is brought to order.
Take action to protect critical landscapes and water quality in the Rockies:
Feature image: Michael Ready