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Report finds cost in the billions for Elk-Kootenai mining wastewater treatment

One of the main pollutants of concern that has been entering Lake Koocanusa near Eureka is selenium
Fording Mine
Posted at 9:05 AM, Apr 06, 2024

MISSOULA — Wastewater from Teck Resources Limited's coal mines has been coming down from British Columbia's Elk River Valley into Montana for years.

Lake Koocanusa near Eureka spans the U.S.-Canada border and is directly impacted by the mining operations. One of the main pollutants of concern is selenium. Biologists have told MTN News in previous reports that selenium impacts fish reproduction and it is over the legal limit in Lake Koocanusa.

Indigenous Tribes including Montana's Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have been urging for an end to the pollution and clean up for decades. Recently, the selenium issue was sent to the International Joint Commission (IJC), the governing body for transboundary water disputes.

Tribes and First Nations want a formal governing plan for the handling of the selenium issue, which would include an oversight body comprised of members of governments with jurisdiction and legal obligations to the watershed, by the end of June 2024.

Lake Koocanusa 2023
One of the main pollutants of concern that has been entering Lake Koocanusa near Eureka for years is selenium.

Wildsight, a Canadian environmental protection non-profit, has been working in British Columbia's Elk River Valley for 35 years. The group has been specifically following selenium levels for over a decade. Wildsight, along with independent consulting firm Burgess Environment Ltd., recently put out a report detailing the clean-up costs for that water pollution.

"We estimated $6.4 billion CAD [$4.7B USD] to implement Teck's 2023 water treatment plan, which includes building water treatment facilities up until 2027 and then operating these facilities for 60 years," Wildsight Mining Policy and Impacts Researcher Simon Wiebe detailed. "Note that [Teck's] plan is not designed to remove all of the selenium produced by mining processes, but will instead likely be enough to treat about half of the mining influenced waters."

According to Burgess Environmental's report, the cost estimate was calculated "in general accordance with the B.C. Policy guidelines regarding Reclamation Security. It is based on continued operation of Teck's existing facilities and programs for selenium remediation, the construction and operation of those planned through 2027 by Teck, and achieving water quality targets proposed by Teck (2014)."

Teck Public Relations Manager Chris Stannell said those numbers are overestimated.

"The estimates provided by Wildsight are inaccurate and inconsistent with calculations made under B.C. government policy. For example, their provisions with respect to capital spending do not align with B.C. government policy and their use of simplified assumptions overstate ongoing water treatment operating costs alone by 50-60%," stated Stannell.

Elkview Mine
Open-pit coal mines in the Elk River Valley of British Columbia are seeping selenium and other chemicals into Montana's waterways.

Teck has $1.9 billion in reclamation security bonds, as required by the provincial government, for the Elk River Valley.

"Teck meets all current bonding requirements as set out by the provincial government policy, and we are committed to meeting all reclamation obligations at no cost to government or taxpayers," Stannell elaborated. These reclamation security bonds are what the mining company would have to pay for extreme environmental degradation.

On Burgess Environmental's clean-up cost estimates, Wiebe wrote in a Wildsight article, "The report’s findings are particularly concerning because they put the cost of cleaning up selenium pollution far higher than what we’ve previously been led to believe based on Teck’s $1.9 billion reclamation security. This could mean taxpayers are left to foot a multi-billion-dollar bill if the owner of these mines ever goes under."

Teck says they are working to treat more wastewater. In Teck's 2023 sustainability report, they detailed plans to build six more water treatment facilities by 2027.

Currently, Teck has four wastewater treatment facilities. Stannell explained these have "capacity to treat 77.5 million litres of water per day, a four-fold increase from treatment capacity in 2020." He continued further, "We have invested $1.4 billion so far in water quality with plans to invest a further $150 million to $250 million by the end of 2024."

However, a majority of Teck's stake may be sold to Swiss company Glencore sometime this year.

Wiebe expressed concern for the watershed if the sale goes through, "We have little confidence in [Glencore's] willingness to engage with the extent of action that will be necessary in the future to tackle these pollution issues."

Stanell shared with MTN that Glencore made commitments to Teck to protect the Elk River Valley.

"As part of the sale of a majority stake in Teck’s steelmaking coal operations, Glencore has agreed to a number of commitments in relation to environmental protection including continuing to implement the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan and ensuring financial provisioning for rehabilitation as required by regulatory authorities."