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Teck's zinc and lead smelting and refining complex is pictured in Trail, B.C., on Nov. 26, 2012.The Canadian Press

A $60-million penalty to Teck Coal underscores the urgent need for B.C. to adopt stricter coal-mining regulations in line with American states downstream of the same valley where four large projects have been proposed, according to the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre and a binational coalition of environmental groups.

Last Friday, a Federal Court judge approved the largest Fisheries Act penalty ever for the subsidiary of Teck Resources after the mining giant put forward a joint submission with Environment and Climate Change Canada stating it contaminated waterways in southeastern B.C.’s Elk Valley with selenium – a natural element that washes out of piles of waste rock and moves up the food chain to cause deformities in fish and ruin their ability to reproduce.

The judge commended Teck as a good corporate citizen for spending $1-billion since the pollution was first uncovered by federal inspectors in 2012 and for co-operating to avoid a costly court case that would likely become the longest environmental lawsuit in Canadian history.

Company president and chief executive officer Don Lindsay released an open letter apologizing for the impacts on the region and Teck has agreed, under the deal, to remove selenium before it reaches the Fording River and enact a host of other environmental safeguards. He said the company plans to invest up to $655-million over the next four years on this monitoring and mitigation plan, which he said is the largest and most complex in the world.

But the transnational mining corporation headquartered in Vancouver is applying to extend the life of one of its coal mines, and there are three other coal projects proposed in the Elk Valley led by a collection of companies with Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Chinese backing.

Calvin Sandborn, a part-time law professor at the University of Victoria and legal director of its public interest environmental law clinic, said the fact it took nearly a decade for the pollution to be penalized by the federal government – not B.C. – shows successive governments have failed to protect the Rocky Mountains watershed near Fernie.

“I have no argument with Teck, they’re trying to make money for their shareholders – that’s what companies do,” said Mr. Sandborn, whose non-profit society provides pro bono work for First Nations and grassroots community groups.

Mr. Sandborn said recent studies show the westslope cutthroat trout of the nearby upper Fording River appear to be on the brink of extirpation. Teck spokesperson Chris Stannell says an investigation into what happened is still ongoing, but preliminary findings indicate water quality, including selenium, is not “a primary contributor to the decline.”

Mr. Sandborn says new coal mining in the region will add pollution to the Elk Valley watershed already battered by decades of coal mining operations that are still leaching selenium downstream and hundreds of kilometres into the United States. Existing water treatment plants are only tackling a portion of the total selenium entering the watershed, Mr. Sandborn estimated.

In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved Montana’s new standard for selenium levels of 0.8 parts per billion or lower in Lake Koocanusa, a long lake that straddles its border with B.C. and is downstream from the Elk Valley. Currently, B.C. recommends selenium not exceed two parts per billion, but the government says it is still working with local First Nations and “is in the process of selecting a selenium water quality objective” for the shared lake.

Lars Sander-Green of Wildsight, an environmental group from B.C.’s Kootenays, said most of the water that flows through the mines is untreated and passes through old piles of waste rock that aren’t part of Teck’s new water treatment system. Until there is a comprehensive solution to this pollution, his charity is calling for a moratorium on new mining projects in the valley, which is also a core goal of its coalition with other Canadian groups such as the Sierra Club of BC, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society of BC and counterparts across the border, the Idaho Conservation League and the U.S. National Parks Conservation Association.

Both Mr. Sandborn and Mr. Sander-Green said B.C. must adopt and enforce tougher limits on selenium levels in the watershed to unify this standard with Montana.

Bruce Ralston, provincial Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, was unavailable for an interview Friday afternoon. A spokesperson for his ministry sent a statement Saturday saying B.C. has improved its mining oversight substantially since a 2016 Auditor-General’s report found serious gaps in oversight and enforcement. The province amended its laws last summer to buttress enforcement and has also created an investigative unit within the mines ministry that has led to the first successful prosecutions in two decades.

The statement also mentioned that B.C. is working to ensure owners of large industrial projects are bonded so that the province doesn’t pay the full costs of environmental cleanup if they are abandoned.

Bill Bennett, a former provincial cabinet minister who long handled mining before retiring from politics in 2017, said the former Liberal government’s approach to this pollution problem was to work with the mining companies to keep the projects viable while searching for solutions, rather than closing operations.

Michael Goehring, president and CEO of the Mining Association of British Columbia, said his industry only began to identify and understand the devastating impact selenium can have on the environment a decade ago. The pollution is a significant and complex challenge in the Elk Valley with no silver bullet, but Teck and other companies intent on mining there now know they must plan mines to reduce selenium during their operations and treat waste water to cleanse it of this element.

“The solution is in play and so, today, really what’s happened is the legal process catching up,” he said Friday.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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