Can British Columbia’s Coal Industry Be a Bridge to a Cleaner Future?
John Steen has no illusions about the future of metallurgical coal mining in British Columbia. But as the world slowly moves towards producing greener steel using hydrogen instead of crossbreed coal as smelter fuel – a technology still in its infancy – he believes the BC industry can be a bridge to a cleaner future.
“The coal encountered is on borrowed time, but that time is not at hand,” said Steen, director of the Bradshaw Research Initiative in Minerals and Mining at the University of British Columbia and a renowned researcher leading important studies international organizations on innovation and sustainable development in the resource sector.
According to Steen, the process of using hydrogen to suck oxygen from iron ore – a key role played by carbon-rich coal in the production of steel, making it one of the most polluting the planet – is still far from widespread commercialization. use.
Until then, he said, all the time and money industry and government have spent to tackle groundwater pollution problems caused by metallurgical coal mining in British Columbia could and should make it the international standard and the reference source for the steel industry on its way. to decarbonization.
âThere are ethical arguments for British Columbia to do this, rather than places like India or Africa that don’t have the resources we have to deal with these issues,â Steen said. âThe problems caused by the extraction of the coal encountered are not insoluble. There are some nifty technical solutions, many of which have been and are being developed here. “
Although Teck Resources dominates the production of iron and steel coal in the province with its operations in the Elk Valley in southeastern British Columbia, it is not just existing operators who are still seeing some life in it. industry. North Coal, a subsidiary of a private Australian resource company, is betting there will be demand for metallurgical coal from its Michel project in the same area, near Sparwood. The project, currently in the environmental assessment phase, could go into production in 2025 and has an estimated lifespan of 25 years. To help demonstrate that the project is being developed responsibly, North Coal is partnering with UK-based Circulor to establish dynamic monitoring of ESG metrics, including carbon intensity.
âThis data is increasingly critical to the growing imperative of steelmakers to ensure their supply chain has as little CO as possible.2 emissions and other leading ESG performance indicators such as indigenous engagement and environmental stewardship, âthe company said in a statement.
North Coal emphasizes that BC’s clean hydroelectric system, along with carbon offsets, is critical to low-carbon production. Mining Association of BC (MABC) Commissioned Mining Association of BC (MABC) Report on Mining and Carbon Pricing in British Columbia, the province’s natural coal produces about half of the carbon emissions produced by the world’s largest producer. , Australia.
For its part, the diversified multinational mining company Teck has pledged to achieve net zero carbon by 2050. The place of coal in its plans is not entirely clear. Bloomberg has indicated that the company is interested in selling or disposing of its coal assets.
A solution for selenium?
While the climatic impact of coking coal in the steel industry has put the sector under scrutiny, the extraction of the material has also caused water pollution in the form of selenium. A natural metalloid like arsenic, selenium can exist as a metal. But it also dissolves in water, becoming both a negatively charged ion and bioavailable to algae and insects that ingest it in water or sediment.
Although a nutritional requirement for the proper functioning of enzymes in humans and other species – albeit in trace amounts – selenium becomes toxic as it builds up in the food chain, resulting in embryonic defects.
In British Columbia, which produces the majority of Canada’s hard coking coal, the rocks have mixed with the massive deposits of metallurgical coal that have been mined over the past 50 years in two main areas – the Elk Valley in the southeastern British Columbia and near Tumbler Ridge in the northeast – have high selenium concentrations.
Due to the mountainous terrain, huge volumes of tailings have been piled up on low surfaces, notably in the Elk River Valley, which includes four large surface coal mines operated by Teck which supply one third of the world’s iron and steel coal. .
Over time, however, rain, ice and snow allowed the selenium dug up in the tailings to seep into the Elk River, a 220 km long waterway that flows south to Montana, where it eventually joins the Columbia River.
Selenium pollution has been blamed in particular for deformed gills in cutthroat trout prized by fishermen, pushing the species into the international waterway on the brink of collapse.
The situation led to the filing of two charges in 2012 under the Canada Fisheries Act for selenium and calcite pollution discharged from the impoundments at two of its Elk River Valley mines.
The slow progress of these cases, however, led two American commissioners of the International Joint Commission to publicly criticize Canada in 2018 for not having resolved the problem.
The following year, eight U.S. senators from states bordering British Columbia also expressed concern over the apparent lack of federal oversight at Canadian mines, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the government of British Columbia to provide data on selenium pollution in the Elk River.
In March 2021, Teck finally pleaded guilty to both counts and was subsequently fined $ 60 million, the heaviest of its kind in Canadian history. Environmental groups, however, continue to criticize the federal government for allowing “one of the most polluting events in North American fish-frequented waters” to continue.
For its part, Teck Resources has been quick to stand up for what it says are decades of continuous effort and action aimed at both understanding and addressing the water quality issues arising from its operations. of coalmaking in British Columbia.
“Teck is committed to protecting water quality and we have made significant progress in implementing the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan,” said Teck Resources Director of Public Relations , Chris Stannell, at the Canadian Mining Journal.
According to Stannell, Teck has already spent $ 1 billion on the long-term watershed protection plan, which was approved in 2014 following consultations with government, scientists and local communities, including the Ktunaxa Nation. BC, and will spend an additional $ 755 million by 2024.
In addition to monitoring water quality and aquatic health at over 130 locations in the Elk River Valley watershed –
Generate publicly available data and reports – the plan includes building several on-site treatment facilities to remove selenium from water contaminated by mining.
Several of these facilities, which are either in operation or under planning or construction, use Teck’s Saturated Rock Fill technology. The innovation uses natural biological reactors –
including enzymes – to passively treat water in massive reservoirs by transforming selenium back into solid form, allowing it to be filtered.
Teck’s first SRF facility, which entered service at its Elkview mine in early 2018, provides near-total removal of selenium and nitrate from up to 10 million liters of water per day.
In February 2021 – just weeks after being on the list of the 100 most sustainable companies in the world and a month before being hit with its record fine under Canadian fish protection laws – Teck commissioned its last bioreactor tank at the Elkview mine, doubling the water purification capacity there to 20 million liters per day.
“Teck is committed to responsible mining that protects the environment and supports the social and economic well-being of the Elk Valley,” said Robin Sheremeta, Teck’s senior vice president, coal, at the launch. the newest bioreactor tank in service. âWe continue to make significant progress in advancing the plan and reducing selenium levels throughout the watershed. “
(North Coal also plans to use saturated rip-rap to passively treat water at Michel, in addition to active treatment and diverting water around the mine site to minimize contact.)
For Sue Baldwin, professor of chemical engineering at UBC and head of the mining microbiome theme at BRIMM, Teck is tackling what she calls “an obvious problem” head-on.
“They are very committed business leaders on the selenium issue,” said Baldwin, a South African-born expert in using natural biological and geochemical processes to solve environmental challenges caused by human activities – better known as bio-restoration.
She first became involved in the Elk River selenium problem in 2004, when the BC Ministry of Environment hired her to identify the source of the selenium and where it ended up.
In 2017, Teck and Baldwin partnered on a now-completed $ 400,000 research project that helped make their SRF bioreactors as effective and efficient as possible by identifying nutrients that help microbes remove selenium from water. affected by mines.
âThey’ve probably hired more scientists than any other company in the world to look at how microorganisms metabolize selenium, which is an under-researched problem that we know little about,â Baldwin said.
Government and Teck-funded science efforts, she added, are now focused on a wide range of issues, from improving or finding other treatment options to extract selenium from water the reuse of selenium recovered as a metal, possibly as nutritional supplements or as a semiconductor in electronics.
These efforts parallel mining innovations such as rock sorting techniques such as x-ray machines on top of excavators that aim to leave selenium intact during coal mining, and reuse and / or recycling. pilings for extracting and recovering rare earths and other metals, making building materials and even neutral soils for agriculture and forestry.
âTeak has greatly improved the quality of the water in the Elk Valley,â said Baldwin. âBut that’s not the end of the story yet. As with old mines, dealing with contaminant issues is still important and ongoing. ”