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B.C. must stop approving new coal mines

Recent progress on a proposed new coal mine in the Elk Valley highlights government inaction on the region’s growing water pollution crisis.

NWP Coal Canada’s proposed Crown Mountain coal mine passed another stage of review with the provincial and federal governments last month, and has now entered the public feedback period.

If approved, waste rock from the mine would leach additional pollutants into a watershed that already regularly records levels exceeding what’s considered safe for aquatic life and human health.

“We cannot risk worsening what is already a dire environmental crisis with another Elk Valley coal mine,” says Simon Wiebe, Mining Policy and Impacts Researcher at Wildsight, a Kootenay-based environmental organization.

The vast piles of waste rock produced through the existing Teck-owned coal mines in the Elk Valley have dramatically increased the amount of selenium, a naturally occurring mineral, leaching into the Fording and Elk rivers. Those waters flow through communities such as Fernie, into Lake Koocanusa on the Canadian-US border, and into Montana and Idaho.

While selenium is critical to human health in small quantities, it is toxic to humans and aquatic organisms alike at higher doses.

Six months ago, B.C. joined Canada, the US, Montana, Idaho and First Nations in agreeing to an International Joint Commission investigation into water pollution from Elk Valley coal mines. Despite Biden and Trudeau promising that the two countries would reach an agreement in principle in Summer 2023, no such agreement has yet emerged.

“B.C. is actively fanning the flames of the selenium crisis by allowing new coal mines to progress in the Elk Valley. Meanwhile, Canada lags behind on its self-imposed deadline to reach an agreement in principle,” Simon says.

“Our governments either aren’t taking this water pollution crisis seriously, or are incapable of demonstrating the leadership that’s required to protect human lives and aquatic health.”

The proposed Crown Mountain coal mine would cover 1,280 hectares between the communities of Sparwood and Elkford in a relatively untouched tributary of the Elk River.

NWP Coal Canada says it can almost entirely prevent selenium from leaching into the environment by keeping its waste rock piles dry under packed layers of waste coal, tailings, and plant material, but this technique hasn’t been used in a coal mining context before and was not designed to manage selenium leaching.

“Given the company plans to deposit its waste rock on top of what is currently West Alexander Creek, it is extremely unlikely it will be able to maintain dry conditions.

“NWP’s Coal’s proposed selenium mitigation measures rely on experimental and unproven technology, and we have no reason to believe they will work. That’s a risk the Elk Valley can’t afford to take right now,” Simon says.

Last year, Teck Coal was fined over $16 million for contaminating Kootenay waterways. That was despite it having poured more than $1.4 billion into research, monitoring, water treatment and mitigation measures over the past decade.

“Unfortunately the reality is that although the coal industry is scrambling to find effective water treatment solutions, they’re just not there yet,” Simon says.

NWP Coal Canada Ltd. is hosting an Information session in Fernie on Monday February 26th.

Photo: Garth Lenz / ILCP RAVE

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