Selenium cleanup costs exceed BC coal mine’s financial obligations, report warns

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Bridge selenium
The watershed includes communities such as the B.C. city of Fernie, Lake Koocanusa on the Canada-U.S. border, and water courses flowing through Montana and Idaho. Pictured is Lake Koocanusa Bridge in Montana. Photo Credit: Laurens, stock.adobe.com

Just one week after the International Joint Commission announced an official investigation into ongoing selenium contamination from coal mining in British Columbia’s Elk River Valley into Lake Koocanusa, a new report is claiming the cleanup costs to treat just half of the selenium-contaminated water could approach $6.4 billion over 60 years, greatly exceeding the costs that B.C’s Teck Coal is currently required to pay.  

The new report was commissioned by B.C.-based environmental advocacy organization, Wildsight, which states that the cost estimate only reflects remediating part of the selenium contamination in the Kootenay/ai watershed.  

It further states that the financial assurances provided by the company in the form of reclamation security, will be insufficient based on the company’s own past expenditures on the selenium issue. However, the report notes that the B.C. government has the power to increase the level of reclamation security required by Teck under the Mines Act.  

“This could mean taxpayers are left to foot a multi-billion-dollar bill if the owner of these mines ever goes under,” Wildsight wrote in a statement on the report by independent consulting firm Burgess Environmental Ltd. 

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Currently, $1.9 billion is required by the province for Teck to reserve for emergency shutdowns and mine reclamation, and the projected expenses of the company’s initiatives to combat selenium pollution. So far, Teck has allocated over $1.4 billion since 2014 towards mitigating selenium concentrations. 

“The true cost of cleaning up environmental damage from Teck’s Elk Valley mines would be far greater than $6.4 billion if you consider other reclamation processes that will have to be done, such as land reforming, revegetation, biodiversity promises, aquifer remediation, and water quality concerns other than selenium,” the report adds. 

Wildsight suggests that mining by Teck Coal has quadrupled selenium concentrations in the Kootenay/ai watershed over the past 38 years, exceeding levels considered safe for aquatic and human health. The watershed includes communities such as the B.C. city of Fernie, Lake Koocanusa on the Canada-U.S. border, and water courses flowing through Montana and Idaho. 

The report states that its cleanup cost calculations are based on Teck’s own mitigation strategy, which is largely based on building water treatment plants up to 2027 and operating them for 60 years to reduce selenium concentrations.  

Teck plans to add additional treatment facilities between now and 2027 that would result in a total treatment capacity of 150,000 m3 per day, tripling the current capacity. 

Teck officials, however, rejected the new report’s financial calculations, suggesting to Reuters that they overstate ongoing water treatment operating costs alone by 50-60%. 

The Wildsight report comes as Teck prepares to sell a majority stake of its Elk Valley coal mining business to Swiss mining giant Glencore in a $6.9 billion dollar deal. Glencore has publicly declared its intention to spin off the merged coal assets within two years and list the integrated coal unit on the New York Stock Exchange. 

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