Environmental groups are urging the federal government to designate a proposed coal mine expansion from Teck Resources in the Elk Valley for an impact assessment.
The company is in the early stages of feasibility assessment for the Castle Mountain expansion plan, which would extend operations at Fording River to a nearby mountainous coal reserve.
Teck Resources has also begun a provincial regulatory process to obtain an environmental assessment certificate, and is hoping to submit a draft Environment Assessment application by next year, according to an update from a company spokesperson during a regional district board meeting in Cranbrook back in March.
A local environmental organization says that’s not enough oversight.
“Coal mining in the Elk Valley is an environmental disaster,” said Lars Sander-Green, mining coordinator at Wildsight, in a press release. “If a coal mine expansion that will literally take apart a mountain and send hundreds of railcars of coal overseas every day for decades isn’t big enough for a federal environmental assessment in Canada, then something has gone very wrong.”
“B.C.’s environmental assessment process already greenlit three massive coal mine expansions in the Elk Valley, ignoring a growing water pollution crisis. This time around, we need a federal environmental assessment to protect our fish.”
Wildsight, along with EcoJustice — an environmental law charity — have sent a letter to Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change, requesting that he designate the project for an impact assessment.
A federal impact assessment would consider impacts downstream of the project, particularly in Montana and Idaho in the United States, and open up the process for feedback from organizations, Indigenous First Nations, and communities.
“If Minister Wilkinson is serious about addressing the climate crisis and protecting the environment, he won’t greenlight Teck’s attempt to expand B.C.’s largest coal mine without first conducting a full impact assessment of the project,” said Dan Cheater.
“Teck’s open-pit coal mines in the Elk Valley are a significant source of selenium pollution, which devastates fish populations and remains in waterways for thousands of years. The province continues to permit this pollution and the federal government has not yet stepped in.
“Furthermore, the metallurgical coal from Teck’s Elk Valley mines will cause significant carbon emissions.”
Among the concerns with the proposed mine expansion are potential environmental impacts to the Westslope cutthroat trout downstream of the project, as well as migratory pathways for grizzly bears and wolverines.
Westslope cutthroat are classified as a species at risk by the federal government, while it is ‘blue-listed’ as a species of special concern by the provincial government.
According to a monitoring project on the Upper Fording River, the Westslope cutthroat adult population count dropped 93 per cent between snorkel counts in 2017 and 2019. A monitoring report published in April notes that based on regional comparisons of Westslope cutthroat populations, the decline is due to some feature or condition unique to the Upper Fording River, which could include mine influences.
During a presentation to the regional district board in Cranbrook in March, a Teck spokesperson told directors the cause behind the population decline was unclear and that a number of different factors are being studied by an external team of experts.
Water quality issues, particularly with selenium pollution, have been an issue in the Fording River and Elk River for years, according to a 2014 federal study reviewing Teck’s environmental assessment. That report noted — based on the data collected for that study — that ‘selenium pollution is having a substantial deleterious impact on cutthroat trout in the Upper Fording River system.’
Teck’s Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, created in 2014, contains short, medium and long term goals to improve water quality. Last year, the company says it implemented a number of mitigation initiatives and projects, such as reducing nitrates from blasting, expanding Saturated Rock Fill treatment technology and continuing construction of the Fording River South Active Water Treatment Facility, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2020.
The West Line Creek Active Water Treatment Facility was completed in 2016 and upgraded two years later with newer processes to address challenges related to selenium compounds in treated water.
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