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VANCOUVER — 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.
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