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Wildsight raises concern over Glencore purchase of Elk Valley coal mines

U.S. Senator wants to forge ahead with a unilateral investigation of Kootenay watershed pollution issues
The Line Creek coal mine. Alec Underwood photo.

The proposed $9-billion sale of Teck coal’s assets to Glencore could potentially interfere with efforts to get a transboundary investigative process underway that would study pollution concerns in the Kootenay watershed.

A spokesperson with Wildsight, a Kootenay-based conservation organization, expressed concern that the sale should not proceed until water pollution concerns are officially referred to the International Joint Commission (IJC) — an entity that investigates transboundary water issues — for review.

“We need the IJC to independently investigate the total extent of the pollution and the true costs for its complete remediation in the Elk-Kootenay river system,” said Randal Macnair, Wildsight Elk Valley Conservation co-ordinator, in a press release.

A reference to the IJC is endorsed by the transboundary Ktunaxa Nation as well as the U.S. State Department, but Canada has yet to signal its assent to the process, allegedly driven in part from past resistance by the B.C. government based on Freedom of Information disclosure of various correspondence between B.C., federal and Teck officials.

However, the province recently shifted its position and is currently open to an IJC reference, contingent on the recognition of B.C.’s regulatory role and the IJC being a neutral convener.

The Ktunaxa Nation Council has repeatedly taken the Canadian government to task in recent months for an unwillingness to commit to an IJC reference, as Global Affairs Canada allegedly walked away “at the 11th hour” in early 2022.

As Global Affairs Canada remains non-committal on the process, U.S. Senator Jon Tester, representing Montana, says the United States should forge ahead with a unilateral reference if Canada is “unwilling to meaningfully engage on this issue.”

Tester’s comments were reflected in a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dated Nov. 14, which referenced a commitment between U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reach an “agreement-in-principle” for addressing Kootenay watershed pollution concerns by the end of this past summer — a deadline that has come and gone.

“It is disappointing that this commitment from Canada did not materialize, especially as the selenium contamination issue continues to grow worse,” wrote Tester. “As such, I respectfully request that the United States refer this issue to the International Joint Commission. Our clean water is too important to sit by idly while Canada fails to uphold its end of the agreement.”

Tester’s office confirmed he would prefer a joint reference with Canadian participation.

Water quality issues blamed on mining pollution have been a long-running concern for both the Ktunaxa Nation and environmental organizations such as Wildsight.

In 2021, Teck Coal Ltd. was levied a $60-million fine — the largest environmental penalty in Canadian history — after pleading guilty to a pair of charges under the Fisheries Act for dumping coal mine waste rock in the Upper Fording River.

Lab analysis determined fish captured in the river contained selenium concentrations at levels that can be linked with adverse effects, while calcite deposits were identified in the river and some tributaries that affects quality of fish habitat.

Earlier this year, Teck was also slapped with a $16-million administrative penalty for failing to have a water treatment plant operational by a December 2018 deadline.

However, that water treatment facility at the Fording River South Mine was up and running by July 2022, a 42-month delay that Teck blamed on a necessary pause to implement a fix for a water treatment challenge, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional fines totalling just over $1 million were also levied for exceeding daily and monthly selenium levels at various times in two different coal mining operations.

Teck is appealing the latter administrative penalties following concerns with the process, while seeking an option to flow the money through programs that support Ktunaxa stewardship and cultural goals.

Shifting ownership of Teck’s Elk Valley coal mines to Swiss-based Glencore could be “disastrous,” said Macnair.

“Fish populations have collapsed, municipal and other drinking water wells have been contaminated, and streambeds have been cemented with calcite with no end in sight, ” he said. “Shifting the ownership of these mines to a multinational mining company with a very poor environmental record could make things much worse.”

As part of the announcement on the proposed terms in place to add Teck’s metallurgical coal mine portfolio through the acquisition of Elk Valley Resources (EVR), Glencore made a number of commitments relating to water quality and environmental concerns.

Glencore pledged that EVR will continue to implement the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, as Teck has spent over $1.4 billion on water quality initiatives in the region, with four water treatment facilities that can treat up to 77.5-million litres a day.

Prior to the proposed sale, Teck estimated it will spend an estimated additional $550 million by the end of 2024.

EVR is also committing to be nature-positive by conserving or rehabilitating at least three hectares for every one hectare affected by mining activities.

Wildsight’s press release noted that Glencore has not provided the entirety of funding through reclamation bonds — a surety covering the cost of mine reclamation — for three other mines it owns in the province, to the tune of approximately $8.5 million, according to figures contained in an annual report from B.C.’s Chief Inspector of Mines.

“Money for cleanup must be a top priority before any transfer of ownership takes place,” said Macnair. “Adequate funds must be held to cover the costs of reclamation as well as water quality and environmental remediation so Canadian taxpayers aren’t left holding the bill of cleanup and the environmental cost isn’t ignored.”

The same annual report from the mines inspector also notes that an estimated $1.9 billion will be needed for reclamation in the Elk Valley, however Teck has provided reclamation bonds of only $1.49 billion.

“Teck has already spent more than a billion dollars on water treatment that only handles a small portion of the water pollution coming from the mines,” said Macnair. “The true cost to clean up and to treat the water flowing into the Elk River for centuries to come could easily be more than the $8.9-billion purchase price and will certainly be many multiples of the $150-million commitment to water quality Glencore has announced as part of the deal.”

Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
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