Wilkinson orders federal review of Teck's Castle coal project

Federal Environment minister cites public concern over pollution, impacts on treaty rights for decision

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has determined the Castle metallurgical coal project proposed by Teck Resources (TSX:TECK.B) in the East Kootenays must undergo a federal environmental review.

Teck operates five metallurgical coal mines in the Elk Valley. The Castle project would be an expansion of Teck’s existing Fording coal mine. The company would use existing infrastructure at the Fording operations, and would extend the mine life by several decades, the company says.

Wilkinson today deemed the Castle proposal a designated project under the Impact Assessment Act.

The decision is not surprising, given the concerns raised over the project’s potential to compound the problem with selenium in the Elk River Valley and the lakes and rivers below, including in the U.S., and the public pressure for the federal government to review it.

Wildsight, one of the environmental groups pushing for a federal review, applauded the decision.

“With Teck’s five existing mines in the Elk Valley and decades of mining already permitted, we desperately need a real assessment of the overall impacts from so much mountain-top removal coal mining in one valley,” Wildsight mining campaign lead Lars Sander-Green said in a press release.

But both Teck and the Mining Association of Canada (MAC) expressed disappointment with Wilkinson's decision.

"This is an unfortunate decision, as the Castle Project has already been proceeding through a rigorous provincial environmental review process," said Teck spokesperson Chad Pederson.

"We will work with the BC Environmental Assessment Office and the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to ensure a coordinated review and seek to avoid duplication. We are hopeful that the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada will focus on a timely assessment that is fair and efficient.

"The timeline has not changed, as the project is currently working towards a target of decision in 2023."

“This decision certainly has the potential to lead to longer timelines at a time of unprecedented global economic uncertainty," said MAC president Pierre Gratton.

The project is subject to an environmental review at the provincial level under the BC Environmental Assessment Act, and the province has argued that that should be sufficient.

“It is our view the project is being appropriately managed by the province through our comprehensive environmental assessment and permitting processes,” B.C.’s deputy minister of Environment recently wrote to the federal government.

Wilkinson disagrees, saying in a written decision: “The concerns expressed by the requesters, Indigenous groups, federal authorities, other jurisdictions, members of the public, and those that are known to the agency that relate to adverse effects within federal jurisdiction … may not be fully addressed by the provincial environmental assessment process or through federal and provincial permitting for this project (specifically, effects to transboundary environments, fish and fish habitat, and Indigenous peoples)."

Often, a provincial review alone for a mining project will suffice, with federal ministers relying on the outcome of the provincial reviews to rubber stamp decisions made by their provincial counterparts.

But the federal and provincial governments don’t always come to the same conclusions, and the federal government will sometimes decide a project should have the added scrutiny of a federal review under the Impact Assessment Agency (formerly the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act).

Even if the provincial government ends up issuing a provincial certificate, it could end up being denied by the federal government, which has the final say. That is what happened with the Prosperity and New Prosperity copper mine project. It was approved by the province, which issued an environmental certificate, but was rejected twice by the federal environmental agency under the Stephen Harper government.

In his decision, Wilkinson cited concerns over selenium pollution from decades of coal mining in the Elk River Valley: 

“The project may cause adverse direct and cumulative effects to areas of federal jurisdiction, including to transboundary environments (in particular to fish and fish habitat including, water quality, species at risk, and Indigenous peoples) that may not be mitigated through project design or the application of standard mitigation measures.”

The federal minister’s decision also cites potential “adverse impacts on Aboriginal and Treaty rights.”