Kootenay East MLA, Bill Bennett, is hitting back at conservation groups calling to stall mine expansion while more testing is carried out on selenium levels in the Elk River.
Bennett says that stalling Teck’s plans to expand Line Creek will mean job losses in the Elk Valley, and that Teck should be allowed to carry on working to address the issue, while continuing mine operations.
“Teck needs to get going on their new mining area, Line Creek Two,” Bennett said. “If delays become a problem, the risk is that the vast majority of the workforce at Line Creek, approximately 500 people, and the families who depend on them, will have to be laid off. The coal from the new area is essential to the viability of the Line Creek operation. I personally believe that the selenium challenge can be best met by a flourishing company, mining and selling product, and employing people. We cannot give in to the pressure from special interests to stop coal mining.”
Environment Minister Terry Lake’s announcement on Thursday, March 21 — that no new coal mines will be approved in the Elk Valley until Teck develops a valley-wide plan to manage the cumulative effects of selenium in the river — immediately followed the release of a study that indicated selenium levels above the provincial guidelines in the Elk River.
Selenium in the Elk River is not a new issue, but the most recent study revealed that the levels are now higher than they have ever been before, and surpass the human consumption guidelines for BC Water Quality.
“Although increasing selenium levels in the Elk River is not new information, the report illustrates clearly the difference between water quality downstream of mining activity and water quality in the upper Elk watershed, as well as the adjacent, relatively undisturbed Flathead River,” said Lee-Anne Walker from the Elk River Alliance. “The trend of increasing selenium levels downstream of Teck Coal’s mining operations is a serious concern that requires attention and action to maintain the health of aquatic ecosystems.”
The March 2 study — commissioned by Glacier National Park and released on Wednesday, March 20 — was issued by Dr. Ric Hauer of the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana, who compared water quality in the Elk to the pristine waters of the neighbouring Flathead River Basins.
“These levels of selenium are toxic and known to cause deformities in fish and other species,” said Peter Wood, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society-BC Terrestrial Campaigns Director. “Clearly we are far from striking the right balance between resource development and the need to maintain the health of these ecosystems.”
Nic Milligan, Manager, Community and Aboriginal Affairs, Teck Coal Limited, said Teck’s priority is sustainability.
“The mine has an estimated remaining reserve life of over 20 years and we’re committed to taking the steps necessary to ensure that potential is realized,” he said.
“These mines in the Elk Valley employ over 4,000 people directly and support thousands of families and communities that rely on the industry across our province.
“A moratorium on permitting coal mining in the Valley is not a sustainable solution.” Milligan said that Line Creek Operations will continue to operate, as long as they have a permit.
Teck is, however, investing significantly in finding a solution to the selenium issue, with investments of up to $600 million in the first five years for construction of water diversion and water treatment facilities that have potential to decrease selenium loadings in the Elk River. Their plan also includes investments of up to $12 million annually in research and development, and an enhanced monitoring program to assess the effectiveness of the plan and adapt as necessary.
“We take the challenge of maintaining the health of the Elk River watershed very seriously and are focused on working with all stakeholders to implement solutions that protect both the ecological and economic health of the region,” said Milligan.
But the Elk River Alliance say it is not clear how effective this will be. “At this point, uncertainty remains surrounding the actual effectiveness of these technologies in the face of continued mining activity and proposed expansions,” said Lee-Anne Walker.
“The attention in the media and peoples’ response to it shows that many are motivated and interested in the aquatic health of the Elk River. The recent interest in this issue provides an opportunity for our watershed community to come together and discuss, ask questions and express concerns about the future environmental, social and economic health of the Elk River watershed.
The Elk River Alliance is holding a Selenium Sunday Discussion April 7 from 3 to 5 p.m. at The Arts Station, in Fernie. Interested and concerned residents are invited to find out more about the subject. For more information see www.elkriveralliance.ca