The current Fording River open pit coal mine seen from Castle Mountain.

Teck’s Castle coal mine will require a federal environmental assessment, Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced this week. The Minister ordered the assessment for the large coal mine in the Elk Valley after conservation groups, First Nations, U.S. governments and hundreds of members of the public requested a full federal assessment of the project.

Castle would take down an entire mountain, could send dangerous water pollution hundreds of kilometres downstream and cut off travel routes for bears and other wildlife,” said Lars Sander-Green, of Wildsight, one of the organizations that requested the federal assessment. “With Teck’s five existing mines in the Elk Valley and decades of mining already permitted, we desperately need a real assessment of the overall impacts from so much mountain-top removal coal mining in one valley.”

While the mine was not automatically selected for federal assessment as Teck claimed it was only a small expansion of the existing Fording River coal mine, Minister Wilkinson pointed to the large size of the mine in his decision.

“Castle would be the largest coal mine in Canada by production, sending hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal overseas until 2060,” said Montana Burgess of the West Kootenay Ecosociety. “It only makes sense that such a major project gets the highest level of environmental assessment in Canada.”

The Minister also highlighted the downstream dangers from the mine for fish in the U.S., including species at risk and impacts on U.S. First Nations.

“Just last week, scientists announced that the amount of selenium pollution in Lake Koocanusa should be kept to less than half of what Teck is already sending downstream,” said Sander-Green. “If Teck can’t show how they can reduce selenium pollution downstream of their mines in the long-term—that means without expensive short-term fixes like water treatment that just push the problem down the road—then no reasonable environmental assessment should approve this mine.”

Wilkinson also pointed to concerns from many who weighed in on the project, including his own Ministry, that B.C.’s environmental assessment wouldn’t look carefully enough at all of the environmental risks of the mine.

“B.C.’s past environmental assessments for coal mines in the Elk Valley haven’t grappled with the long-term dangers of water pollution,” said Sander-Green, “so we’re very happy to see Minister Wilkinson acknowledge people’s concerns that B.C.’s assessments and permitting aren’t keeping our rivers and fish safe.”

In their report to the Minister, Canada’s Impact Assessment Agency made it clear that, while B.C. and Canada can work together to make the assessment process go smoothly, a separate federal assessment is needed.

With multiple First Nations weighing in for the federal assessment from both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, Wilkinson also acknowledged that the mine could have impacts on First Nations’ rights in their traditional territories.

“We thank Minister Wilkinson for making the right decision to order a federal assessment for the Castle coal mine,” said Sander-Green. “The environmental dangers of this massive mine must be looked at very carefully and we’ll do everything we can to make sure the federal assessment does exactly that.”

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