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B.C. coal miner penalized $13,500 for spilling 6,300 litres of hydrocarbons

'Serious concerns' raised by First Nations around environmental cleanup are out of scope of regulatory process, says decision.
Operations at the Elkview coal mine in southeast B.C.

B.C.’s largest coal mine operator has been handed a $13,500 administrative penalty for spilling nearly 6,300 litres of hydraulic and engine oil into the environment. 

The 13 separate incidents all occurred in B.C.’s Elk Valley in 2021, and each could have cost Teck Coal Limited $75,000, according to a recent decision from director of the Environmental Management Act Jason Bourgeois.

Bourgeois said none of the spills impacted aquatic or terrestrial habitat, but “failure to clean up the spills could result in some potential for groundwater contamination.” 

Ktunaxa Nation Council (KNC), whose territory the mines operate on, disagreed that the adverse effects of the spills should be characterized as “low to none.” 

“These conclusions are not substantiated by any evidence and appear to be based on minimal to non-existent analysis of the actual risks posed to the receiving environment from the spills,” said KNC in submissions.

The environment has not only “been degraded by hydrocarbon spills,” added Ktunaxa, “it appears likely that unaddressed contamination persists.”

KNC said continued contamination was “based on the failure or unwillingness” of Teck to provide the “documentation and evidence demonstrating clean up and remediation.” Any more contamination from spilled hydrocarbons risks wildlife and affects the rights of the Ktunaxa, including their right to hunt, said KCN.

The initial penalty recommendation from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy totalled $29,500. KNC called for the classification of the penalty to be “medium.” 

Spills caused 'no actual harm,' says Teck

In its own submissions, Teck said the spills did not occur on soil but within a bedrock pit shell of an active mining area. The closest ponds, streams or rivers were 100 to 600 metres away, it said. 

The company said it sucked up 11 of the spills using a vacuum truck or absorbents, and that their impacts on the environment were “low to none.” 

“There is no foundation to conclude that a 'medium' classification is warranted on the facts. The KNC submission presents no evidence of real or potential adverse effects. To the contrary, evidence suggests that no actual harm has resulted,” said Teck. 

Bourgeois said many of the spills were due to damaged heavy equipment and spread out over several kilometres. He said he found no evidence that the spills reached any surface or groundwater. He determined they occurred over bedrock, not soil as alleged by inspectors from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

Bourgeois said the spills had a “potential adverse effect on the environment, but that potential is low.” He agreed with Teck’s submissions that the impacts of the contraventions are “low to none.” 

Escalating enforcement action failing to deter company, says Ktunaxa

The director considered Teck’s previous contraventions, including a $198,000 penalty for mine slurry and tailings spills in 2020 that totalled nearly 52,000 litres. Two of the spills reached surface waters. 

Over two years, KFN said that reports show “there have been 32 spills with no evidence of clean up” and that has led to the release of more than 16,000 litres of hydrocarbon into the environment.

“Despite two warnings in 2019 and 2020, it does not appear that escalating enforcement action has improved [Fording River Operation’s] reporting or management practices,” submitted KFN. “Further, the substantive list of previous enforcement actions should have, but does not seem to have had, a deterrent effect on Teck Coal Ltd.’s continued contraventions.”

On top of the $10,000 base penalty, Bourgeois applied a $2,500 increase for past contraventions and a $3,000 increase for the spills' repeated nature. 

First Nations' 'serious concerns' out of scope

In his decision, the director said the contraventions were not deliberate. Bourgeois also dropped the initial penalty by $14,000 after finding the company likely derived some economic benefit from the spills but that it “would be difficult to estimate or quantify.” 

Another $2,000 was removed from the initial penalty amount for Teck’s efforts to correct their contravention and prevent another incident. The director signalled in his decision that his authority was constrained by regulatory guidelines.

“KNC raises several serious concerns regarding area-wide remediation, closure plans, bonding, additional contraventions, quality of self-reporting, and others,” wrote Bourgeois.

“While I recognize the importance of these concerns to KNC, I find that they fall far beyond the scope of this determination.” 

Ottawa approves sale of Teck's coal business

Public disclosure of the penalty decision comes a week after the federal government approved the sale of Teck's coal operations to the Swiss mining giant Glencore. The approval to off-load its coal mining business and become a purely metals producer comes with "strict" conditions, Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in a July 4 statement.

Teck said the latest development means the sale of its remaining 77 per cent interest in the steelmaking coal business, Elk Valley Resources, has now received all necessary regulatory approvals and is expected to close by July 11.

The $9.5-billion sale also comes with significant pressure to clean up years of selenium contamination that in high doses harms fish. This spring, the International Joint Commission agreed to examine pollution flowing from the B.C. coal operations into the United States. 

Shortly after, a study commissioned by the Kootenay-based environmental group Wildsight found it would cost $6.4 billion to remediate contamination and cover the reclamation costs of the five Elk Valley coal mines — far short of the $1.49 billion in bonding Teck has posted with the B.C. government.

In a legal petition to Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Jerry DeMarco last month, Wildsight said the sale of the mines to Glencore could further place the cost of environmental cleanup onto the shoulders of taxpayers.  

The petition pointed to Glencore's historical environmental track record, and that in B.C. alone, the company is “already delinquent on their modest commitments of $8.6 million in bonding in three of their four inactive properties.”

With files from the Canadian Press