B.C. fines Teck Coal $16 million for contaminating Kootenay waterways

A sign welcomes people to Sparwood, B.C., near Teck Coal's Line Creek operations.  (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A sign welcomes people to Sparwood, B.C., near Teck Coal's Line Creek operations. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A Canadian mining company has been fined more than $16 million for polluting waterways in B.C.'s East Kootenay.

The B.C. Ministry of Environment has imposed three administrative penalties on Teck Coal Limited, a subsidiary of Teck Resources, citing the company's failure to have water treatment facilities ready by a required date to limit emissions of nitrate and selenium from its Fording River operations in the Elk Valley.

The ministry says administrative penalties are monetary fines issued by the government instead of by the court on individuals or companies who violate requirements of environmental laws and regulations. Such penalties are usually issued when non-compliance continues following warnings and violation tickets.

The largest fine, at $15.48 million, was handed out for Teck Coal's failure to activate its Fording River South water treatment facility near Elkford, B.C., by Dec. 31, 2018, as required by the provincial permit for the discharge of wastewater.

The ministry says the facility treats effluent from the Swift, Cataract and Kilmarnock Creeks — all tributaries of the upper Fording River.

Health impact of excessive selenium and nitrate

Overexposure to selenium may cause disorders such as hair loss, muscle weakness, reduced brain function and nail deformities, according to Health Canada.

It says high levels of nitrate in drinking water may lead to methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder with symptoms including headache, nausea, poor muscle co-ordination and cyanosis (blue-coloured skin).

In fish, Environment Canada says excessive levels of selenium may accumulate in fish eggs and cause fry deformities or mortalities.

B.C.'s Ministry of Environment says excessive nitrate can also be toxic to fish.

The second largest fine, $864,000, was issued to Teck Coal's Line Creek operations near Sparwood, B.C., for 48 occasions of excessive nitrate discharge between January 2019 and February 2021.

The ministry says during those two years, the company exceeded the provincially authorized daily and monthly discharge limits by six to 51 per cent.

An additional fine of $216,000 was handed Teck Coal's operations at Line Creek, Fording River and Greenhills for nine occasions of excessive selenium discharge that happened between March 2020 and February 2021.

The ministry says during the one year period, the amount of excess selenium was between four and 25 per cent over the provincially-authorized limit.

The three provincial administrative penalties issued in January weren't the first time Teck Coal was fined for waterway pollution: in March 2021, the B.C. provincial court ordered the company to pay $60 million for not doing due diligence in order to prevent rocks containing selenium and calcite from accumulating in the Fording River.

Environment Canada says calcite deposits can cause a hardening of the riverbeds, affecting the quality of fish habitat.

Teck Coal could appeal the penalties within 30 days.

In an emailed statement, the company says the Fording River South water treatment facility is operating but doesn't specify when it started running. The company also says construction of the facility was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The statement doesn't say whether the company will appeal the fines.

Wyatt Petryshen, a mining policy researcher at the Kimberley, B.C.-based environmental conservation advocacy group Wildsight, welcomes the administrative penalties for Teck Coal, which he says has a long history of missing implementation deadlines for water treatment facilities.

Petryshen says Teck may just see the fines as the cost of doing business but hopes they help raise public awareness about the environmental impact of natural resource projects.

"I hope policymakers and the general public will see this and say something needs to change because if we just allow the status quo to remain, we're not going to have an environment to call home anymore."

But Elkford Mayor Steve Fairbairn says mining companies like Teck will continue to be the biggest employer in his town — home to less than 2,000 residents — and other municipalities in the East Kootenay.