British Columbia prepared to risk water quality on Elk Valley coal mine.

When the provincial government issued an environmental certificate to Teck Coal Ltd. this fall it appeared pollution problems associated with a massive new coal mine in the Elk Valley had been resolved.

But background documents show that is far from the case. The British Columbia government has rolled the dice on the project and is hoping that Teck’s money – and experimental water-treatment plants – can save the Elk River.

A document that gives the minister’s reasons for issuing a certificate for the Line Creek mine, states the environmental assessment “was not able to conclude on the magnitude, reversibility and therefore significance” of an array of pollutants. Nor could it determine “the effectiveness” of two planned water-treatment facilities that will use new methods in an attempt to filter out selenium.

In other words, the government knows the new mine is going to pollute but it doesn’t know whether the water-treatment plan will work.

Everyone is hoping the bet pays off: the miners who work in the Elk Valley, the mining company that is planning to spend $200-million on water treatment, and the government, which could run afoul of an international treaty if pollution controls fail.

With so much uncertainty, it might seem like a high-risk bet, but the B.C. government really had little choice. Without approval, the mine would have shut down, 500 jobs would have been lost and the pollutants already seeping from existing mountains of waste rock would have continued to leach into the river.

Approval of the $3.4-billion mine means Teck stays in business for another 18 years and corporate money continues to pour into research and pollution-abatement efforts.

Coal mining releases many pollutants into surrounding watersheds.

But the biggest concern is selenium, a naturally occurring chemical element which, even in small doses, can cause deformities in aquatic birds, fish and insects.

Studies in recent years have shown the Elk watershed is carrying a high load of selenium, a pollutant that has become of increasing concern around North American coal mines.

Both the U.S. State Department and the government of Montana have taken note of the selenium flowing south in the Elk River.

Under the Boundary Waters Treaty, signed in 1909, Canada and the U.S. agreed that shared waters can’t be polluted on either side of the border, to cause injury on the other side.

The U.S. has been keeping a close watch on the selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa, which spans the border in southeast B.C., and into which the Elk River flows.

In B.C., trout appear to be thriving in the Elk River, but research shows selenium is building up in the fish and is near levels at which eggs become so fragile they break when exposed to water.

The big fear with Teck’s new Line Creek mine, which will produce 637 million cubic metres of waste rock, is that it could release enough selenium to push aquatic life over the edge. That would not only be an environmental disaster for B.C., where the Elk is treasured as one of the world’s best trout-fishing rivers, but it could trigger an international showdown, perhaps with the U.S. invoking the Boundary Waters Treaty to force the closing of a Canadian mine.

When B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak and Energy Minister Bill Bennett issued approval for the new mine in October, they stated in a news release “the company will stabilize and reverse trends in water contaminant concentrations.”

That’s a bold statement, but it’s based on hope, not certainty.

Teck has committed $100-million to one water-treatment plant and is planning a second. But plant No. 2 won’t open until nine years after the new mine has started. So there is big gap when untreated water will flow from the slag heaps. During that time, scientists on both sides of the border will nervously watch selenium levels. If they soar, all bets will be off as to what happens next in the Elk Valley coal fields.

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