Podcast episode #5: Selenium pollution in the Elk Valley w/ Simon Weibe

May 7, 2024

Listen to the podcast audio:


This episode of ‘Beneath the Surface’ features an interview with Simon Weibe, a former mineral exploration geologist and Mining Policy and Impacts Researcher with Wildsight.

Wildsight recently commissioned a groundbreaking report shedding light on the staggering costs associated with reversing selenium pollution, estimated at $6.4 billion dollars. Simon unpacks the report’s findings and discusses their implications.

We kick off the conversation by exploring Wildsight’s mission and what drove them to commission the report. Simon breaks down the science behind selenium contamination, its pathways into BC’s waterways, and the ecological havoc it wreaks. The report’s revelation that Teck’s current reclamation security falls woefully short—$1.9 billion versus the needed $6.4 billion—leads to a discussion on the implications of this gap for future reclamation efforts.

You can access the report here:

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Umair Muhammad, Simon Weibe

Umair Muhammad 00:06

Hi everyone, we’re back with another episode of Beneath the Surface podcast, brought to you by the BC Mining Law Reform Network. My name is Umair Muhammad. Today I’ll be interviewing Simon Weibe about selenium pollution in British Columbia’s Elk Valley. Simon is a former mineral exploration geologist and currently works as the Mining Policy and Impacts Researcher with Wildsight. Wildsight recently commissioned a report which suggests that the cost of reversing selenium pollution from the coal mines in southeastern BC could amount to $6.4 billion. So that’s what we’re going to be talking about. Thanks for joining us on the podcast Simon.

Simon Weibe 00:48

Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.

Umair Muhammad 00:51

To start with, could you tell us a little bit about Wildsight and it’s work and mission?

Simon Weibe 00:57

For sure. So Wildsight is a conservation organization based here in the southeast corner of BC, the East Kootenays and West Kootenays. We’ve been doing conservation related projects for just over 30 years at this point, we’ve got a lot of experience. And we’ve got a little bit of—I don’t want to toot our own horn here—but we’ve got a little bit of a reputation for punching above our weight class in terms of impacts, especially in the East Kootenays, but also elsewhere in BC.

So we have quite a wide variety of conservation environmental protection initiatives that we focus on as well as education. We do a lot of work in environmental education—getting kids outside and thinking about the environment as something that they can be a part of, instead of a something that’s out there. Sort of inspiring new generations of people who actually care about the environment and don’t want to see things ruined.

So we do the education. We do recreation initiatives, we have people who work specifically on recreation related environmental issues, and as well as industrial. We cover a lot of bases here. And recently, a big thing on our radar has been—we have quite a bit of coal mining in our region. And as we all know, with mining comes pollution. So a lot of my focus in this role as our mining analyst at Wildsight has been on the water quality issues related to Teck’s coal mine.

Umair Muhammad

What is Teck?

Simon Weibe

That’s great question. Tech is a BC-based mining company. They also have mines outside of BC, Alaska and South America. But a lot of their operations are in BC. The main ones that people know are the smelter in Trail, Highland Valley Copper. And in in our region, the Kootenays, there’s four—used to be five—enormous metallurgical coal mines. So coal that’s used to make steel.

Umair Muhammad 03:01

Wildsight recently commissioned a report on selenium contamination in southeastern British Columbia. What prompted you to commission that report?

Simon Weibe 03:13

Yeah, so we’ve suspected for quite a while that the amount of money that Teck has put up with the government for—they put aside $1.9 billion, that’s what they say it’s going to cost to reclaim the mining damages in the area. They’ve estimated $1.9 billion to clean up these reclamation sites. They put up the legal amount that they’re required to put up with that.

But the funny thing is that we’ve been having these water quality issues for quite a while and they—Teck is very willing to put out their, they are very open to promoting their $1.4-$1.5 billion that they’ve spent already in water treatment costs, and water treatment research and facility building. It’s all over their website, $1.5 billion. And that’s separate from the $1.9 billion. That’s part of the reclamation. So that’s the big giveaway that something has gone wrong, because water treatment should be part of the reclamation costs, and the amount Teck has spent is almost as much as the total amount. Now it doesn’t pass the very simple sniff test, right?

Umair Muhammad 04:24

Right. This is a little bit of a technical thing. And we did actually have an episode about this very recently on the podcast with Francesca Fionna. About reclamation securities and bonding for mining. But I’m wondering if we could just briefly summarize what that is and what it involves. Because I think most people, you know—every time I have to think about this, I have to kind of review it. So could you tell us what that is?

Simon Weibe 04:56

I keep getting ahead of myself, so it’s nice to have somebody to bring me back a few pegs. So reclamation liabilities are—under BC law, mines have to estimate how much they think it will cost to reclaim the land and reclaim the water that’s involved in the mining process. Mining causes a lot of damage. We’re fortunate in BC that we have decent laws around these reclamation liabilities. A lot of places collect little to no liabilities.

And the purpose of this is to have some money set aside so that if something goes wrong, as they often do in the mining world—mines go bankrupt, if they sell to somebody who then goes bankrupt, there’s a lot of legal loopholes that they can jump through to avoid paying for these costs. But the purpose of the reclamation liability is to say, you don’t get to mine unless you put up this amount of money. And this amount of money should be enough to reclaim the damage. It’s a very basic polluter should be paying principal.

Umair Muhammad 06:06

Okay. So in this case, Teck’s reclamation liability is $1.9 billion. You’re saying they have given that to the government. And alongside that, they’ve spent $1.5 billion just on water treatment.

Simon Weibe 06:22

Exactly. The $1.5 billion that they keep saying that they’ve spent is completely separate from the liability. So on one hand, you have them saying it’s going to cost $1.9 billion to clean up this mess. And on the other hand, they’re saying, we’ve already spent one and a half billion trying to clean up this water. So there’s a big disconnect here. And as we continue to see in the Elk River, the selenium levels continue to go up. So the $1.5 billion that they’ve spent doesn’t—it isn’t even solving the problem. So we know it’s going to be a lot more.

Umair Muhammad 06:55

So now let’s let’s pull back again, to something basic. What is selenium? And how is it making its way into BC’s? waterways? You know, what about coal mining involves selenium? And how does it then get into water? And then what sorts of ecological impacts can it have once it does get into the water?

Simon Weibe 07:21

Selenium is a naturally occurring element. It tends to concentrate in and around coal seams. So a lot of times the coal itself will have high selenium and the rocks that surround the coal will have high selenium levels. And as mines proceed, they have to remove that rock that’s around the coal to get to the coal, of course. And the easiest thing to do is to dump that in the nearest available hole or valley or wherever. So they take that waste drug, dump it in the valley, and it leeches this selenium out over the centuries. This selenium will leach out of the waste rock as rain falls and snow melts—water moves through the system, picks up the selenium, carries it into the river.

And the selenium, when it gets into the river, it causes a lot of issues for the benthic invertebrates, the insects as well as the fish. It tends to get concentrated in their tissues. They get—in a lot of these cases, they get chronic low-grade selenium poisoning, which really just kills their reproductive success chance. It’s around 50%, some of the studies say. So we have all these fish that are 50% less likely to successfully reproduce. And in more extreme cases, you get some deformities, like spinal deformities, you get missing gill plates on the fish. It’s not pretty.

And this selenium flows downstream. It goes down into Lake Koocanusa into Montana, back up throughout to BC in the Columbia River. The fish in Montana are seeing impacts as well. So it’s not localized to the Elk Valley. It’s throughout the Columbia River system we’re seeing this poisoning.

Umair Muhammad 09:04

And there’s a risk of it getting into drinking water as well, right?

Simon Weibe 09:09

Absolutely. The nearby city of Ferny, as well as municipal district of Sparwood, which are very near the mines—and they rely quite a lot on the economic output of the mines to survive—both of them have had to move drinking water supply wells in recent years.

Umair Muhammad 09:25

You know, I was just thinking about this, because I’ve seen selenium being sold as a supplement. My doctor told me that I need to take vitamin D as a supplement because—listeners of the podcast can’t tell but I have a moderate amount of melanin. And so it’s harder for me to get vitamin D unless I spend a lot of time in the sun—which, you know, most of us don’t. So I have to go to the supplement aisle and get vitamin D and while I’m there, I’m looking around and sometimes I’ve seen selenium. So I guess there’s a certain amount of it that we need.

But then I also remember watching a House episode a very long time ago. I don’t know if you’ll recall Simon.

Simon Weibe 10:09

I don’t remember the episode but I liked House.

Umair Muhammad 10:13

I think it’s an episode about—they have to like treat some CIA agent. And they don’t exactly know what’s going on, as always. But eventually it turns out that he has selenium poisoning because he eats Brazil nuts.

Simon Weibe 10:31

Brazil nuts. Yeah, there we go.

Umair Muhammad 10:34

Yeah, if you eat a lot of Brazil nuts, you get too much selenium. And an overabundance of selenium can kill you.

Simon Weibe 10:42

I believe that one Brazil that a month gives you your monthly supply of selenium. So it’s a very small amount of selenium that is important for human life as well as animal life. It becomes toxic very quickly after that initial threshold is met. But it is important for seleno-proteins, I believe, in our bodies. So it’s an interesting case where it’s very dose-dependent. And natural background levels are sufficient for providing selenium amounts to the fish. But yeah, one Brazil nut, that is enough for us for a month.

Umair Muhammad 11:21

I actually think I have some Brazil nuts, but I don’t eat them. Especially after watching that House episode.

Simon Weibe 11:28

Maybe not handfuls. But once in a while, you should be good. Or you could come down to the Elk Valley, grab a few liters of water and you should be good as well.

Umair Muhammad 11:38

Just go for a swim… I actually used to live in Sparwood. I’ve toured one of the coal mines. It’s quite an achievement.

Simon Weibe 11:49

Oh, yeah. Just the volumes of rock that they’ve moved. You can you can see it from space, I’m sure. It’s crazy to—I’m trying to think of a better word than human “achievement.” But humans did achieve that.

Umair Muhammad 12:04

No, yeah, I always think of that, you know, it’s impressive what we can do. And the scale of what we can do. If we applied this to other domains, maybe that would be better. Rather than digging up coal.

Okay, so getting back to the report. You suggest—or not you but the report suggests—that the costs for mitigating selenium contamination could eventually amount to $6.4 billion. And meanwhile, as we’ve mentioned, the reclamation security that Teck has given to the province is just $1.9 billion. So could you discuss the implications of this gap? You know, first of all, why does it exist? And then what could it mean for the future of reclamation efforts?

Simon Weibe 13:00

So when the Inspector of Mines is deciding how much liability to actually charge these mines. There’s a back and forth. The mind says this is going to cost x billion dollars, and the Inspector of Mines says, “We would like to you to provide that.” But in between, there’s some haggling. And so we know from our response from—sorry, from Teck’s response to our mining report, that Teck has said, at least, I think it was $800 million in capital costs over the next couple years, shouldn’t have been included in our report.

Because we [Teck] made arrangements with the inspector of mines, which indicates that there’s some haggling going on. There’s some sort of system where they’re bypassing the nature of the liabilities system, in order to save money. And this is all done behind closed doors. We don’t know anything that’s going on other than once a year, we get report from the inspector of mines saying—we get the $1.9 billion number in this case.

And we get numbers for every mine in BC. But we don’t know what goes into those calculations. So this report basically was to call attention to that fact. To say, A, this $1.9 billion is not enough. B, we’re not following the letter of the law here. We’re not including vast amounts of money that would be involved in actually cleaning up these issues if something were to go wrong.

Umair Muhammad 14:35

So I guess the second part of my question about—what are the implications ultimately of this gap? I mean, Teck’s going to have to spend the money to clean up right?

Simon Weibe 14:47

I would love to say “yes” to that. But in the mining world, things go wrong very quickly. And just last year, I believe, we haven’t gotten to this part of the conversation but Glencore, another mining company—they have major coal mines in Colombia, and they recently abandoned two of them. They were operating mines, COVID hit, they ceased operations. Glencore gave their mining permits back to the government andsaid, “This is not our problem anymore, find a new operator, we’re moving on.”

And so these mines continue to sit. And Colombia hasn’t been able to find operators for the mines so that they’re not operational. They’re not reclaimed. There’s nobody that would even be responsible for reclaiming these mines. And obviously, this is in another country, we have different laws here. But there are examples in BC of similar things happening.

Like the Britannia water treatment facility, you might have heard. It was a copper mine on the west coast, that operated until the 70s. It was continuing to leach acid rock drainage into the ocean for multiple decades. And eventually, BC taxpayer got settled with the water treatment facility bill. And it was, I think, on the order of $40 or $50 million in cost. And here in the Kootenays. The coal mines are huge. And we have, you know, Teck already has four operating water treatment facilities, they have plans for five more by 2027, I believe. So if we extrapolate those costs out, you know, it hits that $6.4 billion dollars pretty quick.

Umair Muhammad 16:29

And then also, just to note that the $6.4 billion is just for selenium. You guys didn’t consider all of the other reclamation, right?

Simon Weibe 16:41

It’s just for selenium. And it’s not even for all of the selenium, this wouldn’t remove all the selenium produced by the mines.

Umair Muhammad

Okay. Could you explain that?

Simon Weibe

Yeah, so the $6.4 billion, we chose to target exactly what Teck says they will do by 2027. They want to build these five extra facilities, and then operate those facilities for 60 years into the future. We—well, I say we, but the engineer that we hired—calculated that these facilities would be enough to treat about half of the water that will be selenium loaded from these waste drop files. So you’re roughly treating half of the selenium problem with that $6.4 billion, which would have a big impact on the selenium levels in the system, but it wouldn’t be back to historic levels.

Umair Muhammad 17:31

And then I noticed that as part of the report, you included the response from Teck as well as the province to the report—or to the findings in the report. I guess the final report probably wasn’t given over to them. So could you talk about what what their responses were?

Simon Weibe 17:50

Yeah. So Teck mainly centered around their arguments that we either don’t know the reclamation policy very well and chose not to—that we just chose not to follow it.

Umair Muhammad 18:03

Who doesn’t know the reclamation policy? They don’t know or you don’t?

Simon Weibe 18:09

Teck argued that we don’t know. And there is some validity to that argument, because we know what’s written down in the liability report, the policy documents, but we don’t know what’s actually being followed. We know that things aren’t being included in the actual liability amounts that should be under the water treatment, facility construction and operation for 100 years into the future is supposed to be covered by the policy.

But we know Tech’s response to our document itself states that there are things that are not included in the policy that should be in their reclamation amount that should be—so things aren’t being followed. And we don’t know what and we would really like more transparency on the issue.

Umair Muhammad 18:54

Right, because we don’t know what happens when they go into the meeting rooms.

Simon Weibe 18:59

Yeah, that’s exactly right. There are places—and I believe Alaska and Nevada both have similar reclamation liability systems, but they make these calculations and the reports public. And they have public comment periods where organizations like us at Wildsight or MiningWatch, or the BC Mining Law Reform network, could look at these documents and say, “Hey, this is reasonable. We should charge this amount.”

Or at least we can we know what’s going in, and we could comment on it. But we really just don’t know. We know what should be in. And we know that it’s wrong, the amount that is being charged, but we’ve just been kept in the dark.

Umair Muhammad 19:39

Okay, so that’s concerning. And then, what did the province say?

Simon Weibe 19:43

There are a lot of good people at the province that we’ve had chances to talk to. The response, I would say hasn’t been super substantial. Yeah, it’s difficult to say actually what we achieved by—just through discussions with the province themselves. Multiple meetings, as well as meetings with the federal government, but not a lot came out of it to be honest.

Umair Muhammad 20:08

So far! Just wait until this podcast is published.

Simon Weibe 20:12

Oh, we’re gonna crack it open, yeah!

Umair Muhammad 20:16

So then what are the next steps for Wildsight in addressing the issues that you’ve highlighted in the report?

Simon Weibe 20:23

Currently, Teck’s coal assets are in the process of being sold to Glencore. I mentioned their name earlier—as well as some steelmakers in Asia. But this deal is currently under federal investigation with the Investment Canada Act. We’re hoping to get some sort of response on that in the next few months. Nobody really knows, but we’ll see what happens.

And our main goal on this coal issue is to keep the pressure for enforcing stronger bonding reclamation requirements. We’re not here to try to scuttle the deal. That’s not our plan. What we want to make sure is that there are environmental protections in place for this deal. If that could be achieved, then I would be—I would feel a lot more comfortable as a resident of the Kootenays.

Umair Muhammad 21:18

And then, finally, what can listeners do? Especially those who live in southeastern BC? What can they do to support or even get involved with Wildsight’s efforts in their own communities?

Simon Weibe 21:32

Yeah, absolutely. We have a lot of things going on.—we’re always putting on events. We have offices all over the Kootenays—Nelson, Crest,Revelstoke, Golden, Kimberley, Cranbrook is our main one. We love to have people get involved. Newsletters, we got everything—there’s something to interest everybody. I feel like anybody who lives in the Kootenays could benefit from some of our materials at least. So please do check us out.

Umair Muhammad 21:59

We’ll include a link to the report as well as to the website where people can get involved in the description to the podcast. Thanks so much for taking the time, Simon.

Simon Weibe 22:11

Thanks for having me on. I love the work you guys do. And it’s good to be a part of it.

Umair Muhammad 22:20

Thanks to Simon for taking the time to come on the podcast. And thank you, listeners, for tuning in. If you’re not subscribed, we encourage you to do so. We also encourage you to share this podcast with anyone you know who might find it interesting. And really, who wouldn’t find it interesting? This is enthralling stuff. So I say just send it to everybody.

And make sure to check out the episode description for a link to the report Simon and I chatted about. You’ll also find a link there to a page where you can become a member of Wildsight. Thanks again for tuning in. We’ll see you next time.