Teck is eyeing an expansion of operations at Fording River that would extend south to Castle Mountain and provide a source of coal mining for “decades to come,” according to a company spokesperson.
Nic Milligan, Manager of Social Responsibility, pitched the company’s preliminary expansion plans to the Regional District of East Kootenay board of directors on Friday.
“Fording River – Castle is an extension of the Fording River mine,” said Miilligan. “It’s immediately south of our existing Fording operations. Castle will become our primary source of coal for Fording River and maintain the production rates as discussed for decades to come.
“We don’t know the full scope, either of the reserve — we’re still doing exploratory drilling on Castle — or the mine life because we haven’t completed some of the detailed mine design. That will happen in the years to come.”
Milligan emphasized that the project is in it’s very early days and is currently at the pre-feasibility design stage looking at aspects such as mine pits, tailing ponds and other mining infrastructure.
Baseline environmental and social information collection processes are also underway, he added, and existing infrastructure at Fording River will be used as part of Castle Mountain expansion operations.
Teck will be coordinating with the provincial government this year to start the regulatory process to obtain an Environmental Assessment Certificate,which is necessary for the project’s approval, Milligan said.
By next year, the company is hoping to submit a draft Environmental Assessment application, with the hope for final project approval by 2023.
The coal reserves at Fording River are projected to begin declining within the next five years, and the Castle expansion would augment that production decline, Milligan said.
If the project meets all regulatory timelines, Milligan said coal production at Castle Mountain could start by 2026.
“Current permits support operations to mid-2020s, Castle, as I said at the outset, will be essentially the future of Fording River operations,” Milligan said.
Fording River represents roughly one-third of Teck’s coal business, according to Milligan. The mine has been in operation since 1972 and was acquired by Teck in 2008.
Current production is capable of roughly 8.5-9.5 million tonnes annually, however, last year, Fording River’s output was 7 million tonnes.
Across the region, the Elk Valley coal mines employ roughly 3,000 and provide $3.9 billion in economic contributions, based on 2018 figures, Milligan said.
Directors seek answers on water quality, habitat impacts
Following Milligan’s presentation, Area G Director Gerry Wilkie had questions about the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan and also asked about the cause behind declines in Westslope cutthroat trout populations in Elk Valley waterways, alleging it was related to elevated selenium levels.
Milligan admitted there has been a decline in cutthroat population counts over the last two years, but said the cause is unknown.
“It is unclear what the causes are,” Milligan said. “It may not be related to mining. There are a number of lines of inquiry, including things like predation, two years of low flows…there are a number of factors that are being looked at.”
An external team of experts has been brought in to study the issue, he added.
This year, Teck is spending $400 million on water treatment technology in the Elk Valley.
The West Line creek Active Water Treatment Facility is up and running, which has seen a reduction of selenium downstream, and construction continues for another active water treatment facility at Fording River which should be online by 2021, according to Milligan.
Fernie Mayor Ange Qualizza also pressed Milligan on whether Teck was in compliance when it came to water quality management, warning that she ‘already knows the answer’.
Milligan said he thinks Teck is currently out of compliance with the plan because of some issues when the West Line Creek active water treatment facility was commissioned.
An advanced oxidation process, from theoretical concept to installation at West Line Creek, took two years, and has delayed construction at Fording River, Milligan said.
“We’re slightly behind on the plan, but our intention is to catch up,” he added.
Sparwood mayor David Wilks also voiced concerns about potential impacts to wildlife habitat around Castle Mountain and what effects any mine development would have on ungulate populations.
“High elevation grasslands is very important habitat,” he said. “Fording River currently supports a very healthy sheep population but we will, of course, look at all the impacts of the development as it progresses and ensure that what we can’t avoid, we will mitigate or offset to ensure the continued health of that species.”