Current Problems


Tracing the toxic impact of B.C. coal mining

May 17, 2023

Concern is mounting over the effects of B.C. mines on aquatic life, with Indigenous groups, scientists and environmentalists in Canada and the U.S. saying action cannot be delayed.

The Fording River Coal Mine in Elkford, B.C.Submitted by Alec Underwood

CBC News: South of the border, in Bonners Ferry, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is working to restore the population of Kootenai River white sturgeon. The landlocked species, found in B.C., Idaho and Montana, are in decline due to human activity, as are resident burbot populations.  “That’s why I’m here,” said David R. Weaselhead Jr., a technician at the tribe’s hatchery. “To restore the population of sturgeon and get it off of the endangered list.”

However, while the tribe has had some success, there is growing concern about the effect that mining in B.C. is having on aquatic life.

For decades, coal mines in the province have been polluting the Kootenay River Basin, a cross-border watershed, leading to mounting concerns on both sides of the border around fish health — and recently prompting a joint agreement between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden.

A man sits in a boat.
Trees in front of a mountain.
A dam.
A man holds up a small fish.
Selenium could lead to fish population decline: scientist

Selenium and other chemicals leach from waste rock created by these coal mines — owned by the Vancouver-headquartered Teck Resources — in the Elk Valley, more than 940 kilometres east of the city.

According to Health Canada, selenium can be found in the Earth’s crust and some minerals, and can be taken as a supplement and is found in anti-dandruff shampoo. But in high concentrations, it can pose a threat to fish health and reproduction.  Christopher Mebane, deputy director for studies with the U.S. Geological Survey, says selenium can lead to deformities in young fish.

A fish is held in a person's hands.
A young sturgeon at the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho hatchery in Bonners Ferry. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

“It’s generally taken up through the food web. If you get enough deformities in the trout then the population could decline,” said Mebane, who tests for selenium in fish and insects with his team. Mebane says they are also finding increased levels of nitrate in the watershed, leading to the growth of didymo, or “rock snot.” “It forms these very dense carpets on the base of the river, and the substrate of the river,” he said, adding that it makes it difficult for juvenile fish to find habitat between the rocks.

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is concerned the pollutants in the watershed will reverse decades of work and millions of dollars in efforts.

WATCH | Tracking the impact of toxic mining runoff in B.C.‘s Elk Valley:

“Some of those burbot already exceed protective criteria here in the United States, which means these young females, their eggs have a higher selenium concentration than the science has shown would be safe for them,” said Shawn Young, director of the Fish and Wildlife Department for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.

Gary Aiken Jr., vice-chairman of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, says he’s “horrified” by the data. “It’s going to be a very fast and catastrophic decline if we don’t nip this right now and get something going to reverse this trend,” he said.  “The river to us is our lifeblood. The river to us is our veins. It’s our blood. It was our highway system back in the day. It’s how we got to each village, each different family site. How we visited one another, how we hunted, how we travelled anywhere else.”

As a result, Indigenous governments have been calling for an International Joint Commission, to study and seek solutions to the transboundary selenium contamination.

A trio of people in a river.
Scientists for the U.S. Geological Survey are pictured gathering insects to test from the Kootenai River in Montana. (Corey Bullock/CBC)
A man in a cable car.
Chad Reese, hydrologic technician, USGS, Wyoming Montana Science Centre. He is pictured on a cable car that is used to obtain water samples from the Kootenai River. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)
Fish in an indoor tub.
Baby sturgeon at the Twin Rivers Sturgeon/Burbot Hatchery in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. (Corey Bullock/CBC)
Coal mines indispensable to economy: researcher

While decreasing pollution from the coal mines is important, it’s impossible to fully eliminate the mines as they are part of the community’s economic fabric, according to Wyatt Petryshen, the mining and policy impacts researcher for the East Kootenay environmental organization, Wildsight.  “It’s a huge economic supporter for this region,” he said, “but it probably shouldn’t occur for the next 100 years. We need to find ways in which we can transition our economies away from relying on coal and steel manufacturing.”

But there is no quick fix, he adds. “Selenium will continue to leach out of these rocks for the next 100 to 200 to 500 to 1,000 years.”

A man in front of a coal processing plant.
Wyatt Petryshen, mining policy and impacts researcher for the environmental group Wildsight, is pictured in front of a coal processing plant near Elkford, B.C. (Camille Vernet/Radio-Canada)

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Teck said it has spent more than $1 billion on four water quality treatment facilities, each with the capacity to treat and remove selenium from up to 77.5 million litres per day. 

The mining company also said it is conducting extensive studies and monitoring the quality of water in the Elk Valley.  “Monitoring shows that selenium concentrations have been reduced downstream of our water treatment facilities at Line Creek and Elkview and we expect further significant reductions as the new Fording River facilities come online,” the statement read.

Teck added they plan to have new treatment capacity almost every year for the next five years, increasing capacity to 142 million litres per day. 

Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation — whose territory covers parts of southeastern B.C., and also historically parts of Alberta, Washington, Idaho and Montana — argues more needs to be done. “Our concern for our homeland is unchanged,” said Teneese. “The fact is that we’re concerned that any activity that impacts any living thing is something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. “Up to now, the company has been out of compliance and there seems to be little or no consequences and that’s, you know, that’s concerning to us,” she added, referring to recent fines Teck was issued by the province.

In February, Teck was fined $16 million for polluting Kootenay waterways and failing to have their treatment plant up and running by a certain date. Teck has since appealed those fines. 

A woman looks at the camera.
Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation Chair, in Cranbrook, B.C. (Camille Vernet/CBC Radio-Canada)
Canada, U.S. governments jointly address issue

On March 24, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden made a joint statement addressing the pollution stemming from the Elk Valley.  The leaders said they intend “to reach an agreement in principle by this summer to reduce and mitigate the impacts of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenay watershed, in partnership with Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples, and in order to protect the people and species that depend on this vital river system.”

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Ottawa said discussions surrounding this work remain ongoing. “We will provide an update on the agreement in due course,” it said. RELATED LINKS

Teneese says the fact that the topic is on the radar of Canadian and U.S. governments is a positive thing. “As we continue to bring our pressure to bear at least they’ll know what we’re talking about,” she said.

Weaselhead Jr. agrees. “I’m hopeful that both [parties] can work together, that we can come up with a good, positive solution for the future, for both of our countries, for the sake of the sturgeon and the water in general,” he said. “Because water is life, and we all need water.”

About the Author

Corey BullockCorey Bullock is a CBC Video Journalist in Cranbrook. You can contact her at