May 18th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 20
B.C. auditor general cites Teck in scathing report on mines
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Pass Herald Reporter
The B.C. auditor general says the province overruled the Ministry of Environment and ignored risks to the Elk Valley watershed when it approved the Line Creek coalmine expansion.

The accusation is contained in a scathing report published May 3 by Auditor General Carol Bellringer. The report also contends the government is failing to protect the environment from mines and that taxpayers could be on the hook for over $1 billion in mine remediation.

Bellringer’s report used the the Line Creek coal mine expansion to show how the Ministry of Environment has allowed degradation of water quality in the Elk Valley.

The Ministry of Environment denied a permit for the expansion of Line Creek but it was later approved anyway by Cabinet. It was the first time Cabinet used its authority to approve such an expansion, said Bellringer.

“The rationale for the decision was not publicly disclosed,” says the auditor general’s report.

The expansion extended mining activities into an area inhabited by westslope cutthroat trout, a species listed as being of “special concern” under the federal Species at Risk Act.

“This approved expansion of mining operations creates a risk of further decline of this species,” says the report.

Despite the health and environmental risks that the mine expansion poses, Bellringer’s report concludes: “The ministry has not disclosed these risks to legislators and the public.”

Line Creek is one of five mines owned and operated by Teck Resources Ltd. in the Elk Valley.

Numerous studies have linked more than a century of coal mining in the Elk Valley to high levels of selenium in the Elk River.
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Selenium is a metal found in natural deposits, such as ores, and can end up in bodies of water when discharged from refineries and mines. Trace amounts are needed for cellular function but too much selenium is highly toxic for both fish and humans.

Nic Milligan, Teck’s manager of Community and Aboriginal Affairs, said his company welcomes input on how it can improve its environmental performance.

“The extension of our Line Creek operation went through a rigorous and thorough environmental assessment process, including public consultation with communities and First Nations on the potential environmental effects of the project,” he said.

In a telephone interview, B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said the auditor general misrepresented the government’s plan to reduce selenium in the Elk River.

“It’s just wrong,” said Bennett. “They just don’t understand the longer term approach we’re taking to the problem.”

Bennett said the Minister of Environment would have had to deny the Line Creek expansion because it would increase the level of selenium in the Elk River past provincial guidelines but that the Environmental Management Act contains a section that authorizes Cabinet to make a decision if it’s in the public interest.

“The opposition has characterized this as Cabinet overruling the [Ministry of Environment],” said Bennett. “We didn’t overrule anybody.”

“Cabinet made the decision that in the public interest, we should keep the company operating, keep people employed and have the company pay the huge costs of water treatment to bend down the selenium growth curve,” he said.
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If Teck was not allowed to expand into new pits, each of its Elk Valley mines would close and the problem of legacy selenium would be turned over to the taxpayer, he said.

“The mining industry would have to close down, thousands of people would have been out of work,” said Bennett. “I don’t disagree with the report’s recommendations but [the auditor general] just doesn’t understand the longer term approach we’re taking to the problem.”

Bennett was referring to the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, which calls for the construction of water treatment facilities at a number of Teck’s Elk Valley operations.

Immediately after it was published, Bennett accepted 16 of the 17 suggestions made in the auditor general’s report.

But the government and auditor general continue to disagree on a number of issues including a recommendation to form an independent compliance and enforcement unit separate from the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

“We haven’t found anywhere in the world where they separate permitting from compliance and enforcement and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “When you’re permitting a mine, it’s complex stuff, if you separate those elements, it’s going to be hard for compliance people. It’s why I think, there isn’t anywhere in the world where they’ve done this.”
May 18th ~ Vol. 85 No. 20
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