B.C.’s environmental enforcement branch has fined Teck Coal over $16 million for breaches of water quality permit regulations in the Elk Valley, including a failure to comply with conditions requiring a treatment facility at the Fording River South coal mine be operational by December 2018.
That water treatment facility was finished and operational by July 2022, but the environment ministry’s enforcement branch levied a $15.5-million fine, using a daily multiplier starting from a March 2021 enforcement deadline and dating back three years.
“The contravention results in a threat to the integrity of the environment and undermines the basic integrity of the overarching regulatory regime and significantly interferes with the Ministry’s capacity to protect and conserve the natural environment,” reads the decision.
A water treatment facility at the Fording River South mine operation was proposed and included in a permit following a ministerial order issued in 2013, which required the facility to be operational in five years.
The province’s enforcement branch determined there was no record of Teck making a permit application to vary the requirement, despite the company saying it notified the province in August 2018 when it realized it wasn’t going to meet the December deadline.
The adjudication process included submissions from Teck as well as the Ktunaxa Nation Council (KNC), as the nation’s traditional territory covers the southern interior of B.C. and extends into the United States’ pacific northwest region.
“The KNC highlights the acknowledgement made in these determinations that the mining activities and associated impacts are within Ktunaxa territory, and that KNC will continue to be consulted on the issues that impact our rights and title and these waterways,” said KNC chair Kathryn Teneese in a press release.
“We have been resolute and consistent in our desire to see improvements in the mine-impacted waters in the Elk Valley, and are glad to see our contributions to this review process were well-considered in the determinations.
“During the time frames outlined in the penalty determinations, hundreds of thousands of kilograms of untreated contaminants — which were required to be treated — instead entered the Elk and Kootenay rivers.”
In a statement, Teck noted the completion of the water treatment facility and touted a $1.2-billion investment in water quality treatment initiatives in the Elk Valley, with an additional $750 million on the way over the next two years.
“The Fording River Active Water Treatment Facility is now operating as planned and achieving near-complete removal of selenium from treated water,” reads the statement. “The delay in completion of this facility was necessary to implement a fix for a water treatment challenge, followed by impacts to construction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The company also noted it has constructed capacity to treat and remove selenium from up to 77.5-million litres of water per day.
The total amount of administrative penalties also includes additional sanctions at other coal mining operations in the region.
The company was hit with nearly $1 million for exceeding monthly and daily selenium and nitrate levels at Line Creek operations over a three-year period. A $216,000 fine was also levied for excess monthly and daily selenium and nitrate levels at the Greenhills mine on various occasions between March 2020 to February 2021.
Wildsight, a regional environmental organization dedicated to conservation initiatives, welcomed the enforcement penalties, and said selenium levels have been steadily rising in the Elk Valley for over two decades.
“Exceedances of limits set within the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan are commonplace in the Elk Valley and have led to transboundary downstream impacts,” says Wyatt Petryshen, Wildsight’s Mining Policy and Impacts Researcher.
Wildsight also cited the 2016 Auditor General’s Report on Compliance and Enforcement of the Mining Sector in British Columbia, which identified insufficient and ineffective regulatory oversight has contributed to Elk River water quality issues.
“The continued exceedances highlight the importance of having effective compliance and enforcement but also highlights how the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan has failed to resolve the selenium and nitrate problem that has been known for over two decades,” says Petryshen.
Water quality concerns in the Elk Valley have been a long-running issue for the Ktunaxa Nation and environmental groups concerned about the selenium impacts to aquatic fish species and the downstream ecosystem effects.
Nearly two years ago, Teck Coal was fined a record $60 million related to selenium and calcite contamination of Elk Valley rivers nearly a decade ago.
The Ktunaxa Nation Council is also petitioning the federal government to participate in an International Joint Commission, an entity dedicated to investigating and resolving trans-water boundary disputes, amid concerns over water pollution in the Kootenay watershed and Koocanusa Reservoir.
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