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Glencore sign front of the company's headquarters in Baar, Switzerland, July 18, 2017.ARND WIEGMANN/Reuters

A U.S.-based conservation group is urging Glencore PLC to tell the United States and Canadian governments that the Swiss miner would support bringing B.C. coal mine pollution before the International Joint Commission, a group set up to resolve cross-border water conflicts between the two countries.

The National Parks Conservation Association made the request in a December letter to Glencore, which is acquiring a majority stake in Elk Valley Resources, the coal-mining arm of Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd. TECK-B-T, in a $8.9-billion transaction.

Environmental and Indigenous groups say pollution from Elk Valley coal mines is contaminating water in Canada and the U.S. and they want to see the matter put before the commission. It reviews cross-border issues when it gets a request, or reference, from the Canadian and U.S. governments. Typically, requests are made jointly, but either country can make a unilateral request.

Glencore’s deal, announced in November, is subject to regulatory approval, meaning that, for now, Teck is still the owner and operator of the Elk Valley mines.

But the NPCA chose to lobby the prospective new owner, in part because Teck in the past has opposed a reference to the commission.

“If we’re stuck and if it appears that Teck doesn’t want the IJC, well Teck’s not going to own it any more,” NPCA campaigner Michael Jamison said in an interview.

“So why don’t we talk to the new owners about whether they would embrace a review?”

NPCA was founded in 1919 and advocates for parks and regional ecosystems. In its letter to Glencore, the NPCA says selenium from Elk Valley operations has leached from Canada’s Elk River Valley and flowed across the border into the Kootenai Watershed in Montana and Idaho, resulting in “great concern to Indigenous communities on both sides of the border” as well as concerns at the “highest levels” of the U.S. government. Selenium is a trace element that can accumulate in the food chain, posing risks to the development of birds and fish and potential threats to human health.

In a response, sent to NPCA in January, Glencore’s head of industrial assets, Xavier Wagner, does not mention the commission but says Glencore “is acutely aware of the importance of these issues and the need to continually focus on water quality.”

The letter also says that, if its acquisition goes through, Glencore will continue to implement the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, a provincially approved strategy that is supposed to stabilize and reverse levels of contaminants, including selenium. Glencore would also invest in research and development related to water treatment, the letter said, with the additional spending expected to total at least $150-million.

Potential treatment costs could amount to much more, Mr. Jamison said.

“I don’t understand why at a time when so many billions are changing hands, we couldn’t actually require as part of the sale, an IJC reference to understand the scope of the problem and bonding sufficient to fix it,” Mr. Jamison said.

In an e-mail, Glencore spokesman Charles Watenphul said the company had no additional comment beyond Mr. Wagner’s letter.

Asked about Teck’s position on a reference, Teck spokesman Chris Stannell did not refer specifically to the commission but said Teck supports increased transboundary co-operation on water-quality management.

Mr. Stannell said Teck is also making significant progress implementing the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, adding that monitoring shows selenium concentrations have stabilized and are reducing downstream as a result of treatment.

Critics, including the NPCA, say only a small amount of water is being treated through the plan and that selenium concentrations remain a concern.

In a March, 2023, joint statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden said the two countries would reach an agreement in principle “by this summer” to reduce and mitigate the effects of water pollution in the watershed.

But summer came and went without an agreement.

The quest to have the pollution issue put to the commission dates to at least 2012, when the joint councils of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Kootenai Tribe of Idaho first requested a reference, according to information on the Ktunaxa Nation Council website.

In 2022, the council released documents it obtained under B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act related to its request for a commission reference.

Those documents showed both B.C. and Teck were opposed to a reference.

One letter, dated Aug. 5, 2021, and addressed to Global Affairs Canada from the B.C. premier’s office, says “it is the view of the Government of British Columbia that pursuing a referral to the IJC would compromise ongoing cross-border environmental management efforts which are on track to address concerns that have been raised.”

Another letter, from a Teck vice-president, Marcia Smith, to Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly, said “there is no threat to water quality below the U.S. border related to our steelmaking coal operations that necessitates an IJC reference” and that a reference would interrupt implementation of the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan.

Asked for an update, Global Affairs Canada spokesman Pierre Cuguen said discussions have continued since last year’s joint statement.

B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said B.C. supports the involvement of the commission as a neutral facilitator and would like to see a Canada-U.S. agreement-in-principle that recognizes B.C.’s efforts to improve water quality in the region.

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