Environmental groups are asking Canada’s parliamentary environment watchdog and the federal auditor-general to investigate what they say is Ottawa’s failure to apply laws and prevent serious water pollution from coal mines in British Columbia’s Elk Valley.
The University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, along with Wildsight, is asking the agencies to investigate the “long-standing failure” to stop the contamination of waterways with unacceptably high levels of selenium, a decades-old problem. Selenium is a naturally occurring element that washes out of piles of waste rock, but in concentrated levels, it moves through the food chain and can cause deformities in fish and ruin their ability to reproduce.
“This regulatory failure has directly contributed to one of the most serious and permanent environmental disasters in Canadian history,” reads the investigation request, prepared by students from the centre and supervised by Calvin Sandborn, the centre’s legal director.
“Therefore, it is essential that you review the errors made by federal regulators, so that such failures are not made in the future.”
They made their request several months after miner Teck Coal was slapped with the largest Fisheries Act fine in Canadian history: $60-million. The mining giant had pleaded guilty to two charges related to selenium and calcite pollution released from its Fording River and Greenhills mines over the course of 2012.
Mr. Sandborn, who is also a part-time law professor at the University of Victoria, called the charge “too little, too late.”
“This is like one of the biggest polluting events in waters frequented by fish in North America, and there have not been charges until March,” he said in an interview.
The Fording River and other streams in the Elk Valley are home to westslope cutthroat trout, a native species considered endangered. By 2020, Teck’s own research showed those fish populations had almost collapsed.
Samantha Bayard, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada, said in a statement that it is “not unusual” for an investigation of this nature to take several years to complete.
“The length of an investigation depends on the complexity of the situation and the amount of information that needs to be gathered and analyzed to establish proof of an offence,” Ms. Bayard said.
Chris Stannell, a spokesperson for the mining company, said Teck “disagrees strongly” with the assertion that the federal government has failed to properly regulate water quality in the Elk Valley.
He noted the company was ordered to pay the largest fine in Canadian history, and that the federal regulators have issued a direction under the Fisheries Act requiring significant additional water quality management measures beyond those already required under B.C. regulations.
He said Teck has made significant progress to understand and address water quality issues since 2012.
The Office of the Auditor-General of Canada confirmed receipt of the submission from the Environmental Law Centre last Friday, and said it is reviewing this information and preparing a response.
In its request, the law centre report notes long-standing concerns and complaints from the U.S. government and some officials from several states downstream of the same valley.
In 2018, two U.S. commissioners on the International Joint Commission released a letter to the U.S. State Department, criticizing their Canadian counterparts for playing down the levels of mining contaminants and the extent to which they are rushing out of Elk Valley coal mines and into Montana.
“We write to you with regret that the U.S. and Canadian commissioners have not been able to reach consensus on the report, entitled A Review of Human Health Impacts of Selenium in Aquatic Systems, that was prepared by our health professionals advisory board. Our Canadian colleagues prefer an earlier version of the report that is weak on addressing the recently defined impacts of selenium in the Elk River-Lake Koocanusa-Kootenai River watersheds,” the letter reads.
In 2019, eight senators from Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska wrote a letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan, raising concerns about the lack of oversight of Canadian mining projects, which led to the pollution of American watersheds. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanded the B.C. government hand over data explaining why Teck Coal mines were allowed to exceed guidelines for selenium.
In February, the EPA approved Montana’s new standard for selenium levels of 0.8 parts per billion or lower in Lake Koocanusa, a long lake that straddles the Montana-B.C. border and is downstream from the Elk Valley. Currently, B.C. recommends selenium not exceed two parts per billion and it’s unclear when the provincial government will adopt the shared limit.
But Ms. Bayard said in her statement the federal government is working hard with its provincial and transboundary partners to ensure that appropriate actions are taken to protect the environment.
Her statement noted that Environment and Climate Change Canada is developing coal-mining effluent regulations that will reduce the risks to fish and their habitats by limiting levels of harmful substances in coal mining discharge, including selenium, nitrate and suspended solids. It said the proposed regulations should be made final in 2023.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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