It was a bit of an ironic juxtaposition seeing two cabinet ministers with opposing viewpoints on a controversial pipeline standing side by side during a press conference that concluded an annual energy and mines meeting between provincial and federal politicians last week in Cranbrook.
On one side was Amarjeet Sohi, the federal Minister of Natural Resources representing a government pledging to push forward with the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline. Standing right beside him was Michelle Mungall, the B.C. Minister of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources representing a provincial jurisdiction that is actively opposed to the project.
Sohi reiterated the federal government’s support of the project, which was recently re-approved by the National Energy Board subject to 156 conditions. Last year, a federal court ruling quashed the initial approval after finding that the federal government did not adequately consult affected Indigenous communities and excluded the anticipated effects of project-related marine shipping traffic.
Construction is anticipated to to start later this year, he added.
“We followed the clear direction from the court,” said Sohi. “We engaged with Indigenous communities in a meaningful two-way dialogue, we have responded to the outstanding issues around protection of cultural sites, burial grounds, protections of water, fish, river crossings, protection of coastal communities, marine mammals, the health of the southern resident killer whales, and the other issues that have very genuine concerns from communities. We are moving forward in the project in the right way and we look forward to construction starting on this project this season.”
B.C. premier John Horgan has vowed to stand against the project and the province took the matter to court, arguing arguing that it has the constitutional authority to restrict oil shipments through B.C. However, it was dismissed in the B.C. Court of Appeal and is likely heading to the Supreme Court of Canada for a ruling by the country’s top court.
Mungall didn’t address the Trans Mountain Expansion project directly, but noted that the conference was an opportunity for cabinet ministers serving in other provincial and territorial jurisdictions to share energy and mining priorities.
“At a conference that brings all of Canadian ministers, provincial, territorial and federal on energy mining together— if we solely focused on one topic that affected two provinces, we would be doing a huge disservice to the rest of the country,” she said, “and also a disservice to those two provinces that actually have a lot to talk about in regards to mining competitiveness, energy, clean energy, developing a clean energy future for Canada, as well as the natural gas and oil sector that affects both of our provinces up in Alberta’s respective northwest and B.C.’s respective northeast, so we wanted to focus on issues we could all collaborate on.”
Addressing Elk Valley water quality concerns
When it comes to mining in the region, it’s hard not to acknowledge the coal-producing behemoth that is the Elk Valley.
Teck leads the way with five coal mining operations that supplies millions of dollars to local economies and thousands of jobs.
However, the company has been dogged by water quality issues in the Elk Valley, specifically from selenium in waste rock leaching into the local watershed.
“Every day, the long-term selenium pollution disaster in the Elk Valley gets worse, but there’s no real long-term plan to clean up once mining stops,” said Lars Sander-Green, a science and communication analyst with Wildsight — an organization dedicated to environmental conservation and protection.
“B.C. is letting Teck make big profits from mining coal while locking in many centuries of water pollution.”
Teck has constructed and is operating an active water treatment facility at West Line Creek and is also in the process of building another facility at Fording River that is expected to be operational by next year.
In addition, Teck is also experimenting with a saturated rock fill that treats mine-affected water by pooling it and using natural processes and microorganisms to remove substances such as nitrates and selenium.
In Teck’s 2018 annual report, the company says it plans to invest $235 million in capital spending for water treatment this year, which is estimated to tally up to $900 million by the end of 2022.
However, according to the same document, the company says it was put on notice last year by federal prosecutors regarding potential charges under the Fisheries Act for selenium discharge.
Both Sohi and Mungall walked the delicate balance between supporting job creation in the mining industry and ensuring minimal impacts to the environment. Mungall said that Teck has a difficult problem with the selenium issue, but added that the company’s search for solutions is ‘world-leading.’
“We are continuously working with them making sure that they are meeting standards that are required to make sure that we are protecting our water and that’s the role we have now,” said Mungall.
“…We want to be able to work with them to solve this problem and make sure that we are able to help other jurisdictions around the world also address their water quality issues, especially around selenium.”
Dominion Coal Block
In 2013, the federal government announced it was considering a plan to sell two parcels of land in the Elk Valley and Flathead Valley collectively known as the Dominion Coal Block.
Totalling roughly 22,000 hectares, the land has been owned by the federal govenrment since3 1905 and has a collective estimated 919 million tonnes of coal in situ, according to a backgrounder from the provincial government.
However, Natural Resources Canada says a divesture plan has been on hold in 2015.
“At the moment the Government of Canada has no plan in place for divestiture,” reads part of a statement released by the federal ministry.
In 2010, an agreement was signed between the provincial and federal governments in partnersip with Montana and the U.S. government ot protect the Flathead. A year later, the province passed legislation banning oil and gas development in that region.
Environmental groups have long argued that the Flathead watershed is a critical area for water quality and wildlife habitat.
Tom Shypitka, Kootenay East MLA and opposition critic for the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, said the status of the Dominion Coal Block is an ongoing issue.
“I think there is an opportunity there for partnerships between the federal government and provincial government and industry as a whole to get on board and work through this,” Shypitka said, “and get this done as quickly as possible because it has been on the backburner for years and years, so I would encourage those conversations.”