Employees report being afraid to speak up as community concerns about COVID-19 procedures at the Elk Valley mines grow
Paul Fischer, The Narwhal Mar 20, 2020
The small businesses are closed. Spring break programs are cancelled. Children play outdoors and — though they live next door from one another — do not go inside each other’s houses. The playgrounds are empty. At the ski hill, for the first winter ever, the lifts are silent and the slopes are bare of skiers — a month before the scheduled closing of the season.
Fernie, B.C., is one of thousands of communities across Canada responding to the COVID-19 outbreak with collective efforts. Following provincial and federal guidelines, many businesses have temporarily shut their doors, schools are suspended and families are self-isolating at home. The stores that have remained open are plastered with warnings recommending patrons practice self-distancing and use the now-ubiquitous hand sanitizer bottles. Checkout staff wear gloves.
But, residents say, there is one notable exception to this state of preparedness. Teck Resources Ltd., Canada’s “largest diversified mining company,” is the Elk Valley’s single largest employer. The corporation operates four steelmaking coal mines in the valley, employing more than 3,000 people, and workers are warning the company’s failure to properly face COVID-19 is putting the area at increased risk of an outbreak.
Although Interior Health, the health authority in the Kootenays, has banned medical staff from speaking to the media, some are unable to hide their concerns — and are taking to social media to vocalize them.
Teck’s mines “need to CLOSE down right now,” Dr. Johnny Peachell, an intensive care physician at the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in Trail, said in a post on Teck’s Facebook page. “We are already feeling the stress of this COVID outbreak and we WILL NOT be [able to] handle a surge of cases from Teck.”
He warned that “Canada is at the exact same point Italy was three weeks ago” and urged Teck to shut down operations temporarily.
A March 17 press release from Teck announced the implementation of “extensive preventative measures” amid the coronavirus crisis, including home working for all corporate office staff, the reduction or elimination of large meetings and gatherings, “enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, including frequent disinfecting of employee buses and work areas,” “promoting preventative measures, such as frequent handwashing,” “screening all contractors and external visitors to site for risk factors and symptoms,” “increasing social distancing practices at site,” “expanding sick leave coverage for affected employees,” and “requiring” employees who show flu-like symptoms or return from abroad to stay away from work and self-isolate.
‘We will not be paid’The reality, staff say, is very different.
I spoke to eight Teck workers, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
One witness tells of foremen making the rounds to warn workers: “If we have to be quarantined we will not be paid.” (In 2015, the combined annual revenue generated by Teck’s four current Elk Valley mines was just under $2.7 billion and in 2018 reported record revenues of $12.6 billion.)
“We were all told if we are unable to work because of this virus we will not be paid,” another shop worker wrote me, while pleading for anonymity. Management, they say, are known for “trying to look for things” they can use to fire anyone who speaks up about Teck operations.
When contacted for comment, Teck’s Doug Brown forwarded the company’s press release of March 17, and specified employees unable to work due to COVID-19 would have “immediate access” to their established sick leave benefits, though it’s unclear to which employees this applies to, to what extent and under which specific conditions.
Brown said Teck is following COVID-19 guidelines from B.C.’s Chief Inspector of Mines that recommends groups of more than 50 individuals should be avoided and meal facilities should operate in shifts to “minimize interactions.”
LNG Canada sent half its workforce home this week from its facility in Kitimat, B.C., in an attempt to prevent COVID-19 infections. BC Hydro also announced this week that it will only continue with “essential work” at the Site C dam, where more than 4,000 workers are employed, to help reduce the number of workers staying in camp.
On Tuesday the B.C. Building Trades Council recommended large remote resource projects that house workforces be shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The council mentioned work camps servicing the LNG Canada and Site C dam workforces but did not mention operations like Teck’s mines, which has a 500-person work camp called the Elk Valley Lodge. Many of Teck’s employees live in Sparwood full-time, while others fly-in.
A family member of one electrician wrote to me to confirm much of the information sent in by others, but added, “I have been scared to write a letter or take any kind of action [about the current COVID-19 situation at the mines] for fear of what the company response may be.”
There is “so much anger about the culture that persists at the mine,” the partner of yet another miner says, but “people need their jobs. And the fact is that when anyone stands up for their rights, they get bullied in one way or another … ”
According to several sources, non-disclosure agreements are a common requirement for Teck staff upon joining, and include clauses prohibiting staff from any public comment negatively portraying the company. Teck’s anonymous reporting line, 1-888-873-3745, is jokingly referred to internally as the “whistleblower” line, due to suspicions it is used by the company to weed out and identify those who speak up.
Teck employees concerned about a lack of screening, social distancing“We’ve had multiple employees on site after international travel,” one Teck employee says, and Teck’s “screening” for visitors to site is a simple paper form, to be filled out voluntarily. Oil and gas workers continue to “fly in” and out without screening, travelling from other parts of Canada to the mines as needed, according to another employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Not all computers or workspaces are being disinfected, according to one employee who uses that equipment daily. Miners are provided with standard respirators, but the cleaning crews say they are not provided with safety masks — and since Teck mines operate around the clock, there are no closed hours for those crews to catch up on sterilization away from everyday staff or visitors.
By March 19, according to one Elkview worker, these crews were “running out of wipes and spray” already — a complaint echoed by numerous commenters on Teck’s Facebook page.
In the March 17 company statement, Robin Sheremeta, Teck’s senior VP of Coal, states Teck is “focused on continuing to ensure the health and safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate.” This, too, is scoffed at by the people who work at Mr. Sheremeta’s mines.
And while Teck publicly claims “operating sites are very large” and “employees are widely distributed,” shop workers at the Elk Valley mines insist their workspaces are crowded.
“We are all working very closely with each other,” one shop staff says, “touching all the same things all day.” (At one of Teck’s mines in the area, the shop can be occupied by 50 people or more at any given time.)
“Social distancing is not occurring to [the] operations staff at the mine,” an employee’s family member posted on Facebook.
On Wednesday, a day after Teck’s press release, a meeting was held at Teck’s Elkview site “with 100+ contractors,” a person with knowledge of the situation says. Those contractors were “packed in like sardines.”
The situation on Teck’s employee buses is the same. According to Teck, the number of buses has been increased (a Teck representative, contacted for this piece, did not specify to what number), and workers are made to sit well apart from one another on the vehicles. And yet, on the ground, staff are “worried about the bus rides to work and back but … feel they can’t speak up,” one resident says.
Teck’s commitment to put “one person to seat on the buses to site,” according to another employee, is hollow: “that’s not the case.” A second employee says more buses have been provided, but they follow the same routes and halt at the same stops — where workers wait, in close groups, on the usual schedule, all looking to board the same vehicles. “They added one bus on the last shift so everyone can sit a bit further apart,” a third employee says. Late Friday evening further buses were brought in, with seats taped off and “no more than 15 [passengers]” allowed on each bus, according to staff.
Some on-site staff have taken to carpooling instead of riding the buses, preferring to take their chances with a smaller, consistent group of travelling mates than with crowded buses. Others have tried to drive to work themselves but have been told by Teck getting a parking pass at the mine would be “unlikely.”
On Thursday, according to a Teck internal release to all employees, one worker at the Elkview mine was sent home after exhibiting a cough. It is unclear how long the employee was at work, or in what proximity to other staff. Just days earlier, according to several employees, another member of staff was sent home — after riding the shared bus, and after reaching site — for exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The worker in question had recently returned from the United States.
In response to questions, Karl Hardt, a spokesperson for Interior Health, said the province does not publicly identify the location of confirmed cases. “We need everybody to be aware that the risk is not just in one place. It’s in all communities. People need to be taking the same measures now everywhere in B.C. and across Canada and, quite frankly, globally, right now,” Hardt wrote in an email.
Hardt also pointed to a recent statement from Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, in which she said COVID-19 “is being transmitted very rapidly. It doesn’t serve anybody to think … ‘it won’t affect me. It’s not in my community. It won’t affect my family.’ We know people travel back from all over the place. We know that we can’t always tell everybody that has this disease.”
On Friday, a maintenance shop employee at Teck’s Fording River site, posted on Facebook that “iam [sic] off right now because I have it.” His posts suggested he had been sick and symptomatic for at least three days. Following these posts, on Friday evening Teck updated its internal onsite policies to specify any worker who calls in sick must remain home for fourteen days.
In an email sent Friday evening Teck’s Brown wrote: “Employees continue to be paid under sick leave benefits. As noted, sick leave benefits are applicable for employees with symptoms or who are told to self isolate by a health authority because of close contact with someone with symptoms.” Brown did not clarify if all employees are entitled to sick leave, or only those to whom they were already guaranteed, or whether some employees will be required to take time off unpaid (as claimed by several workers at the time of writing)
Recent studies suggest between 19 and 30 per cent of COVID-19 sufferers carry, and spread, the virus while asymptomatic Even in those who do eventually show symptoms, the asymptomatic incubation period is thought to last anywhere from four to 11.5 days. The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends voluntary quarantine (self-isolation) for all persons who have had “close contact with a symptomatic person … to prevent transmission of the virus.”
A Centex gas station in Cranbrook, which services Teck trucks, closed the same day, due to an employee testing positive for the virus, according to a gas station employee. As of 3 p.m. on Friday, Teck had not communicated with any of its employees about any positive tests, or announced any changes to its COVID-19 response.
Many of the Teck employees The Narwhal contacted are concerned for themselves — but all are worried for the community at large, and the impact their employer may be having on it.
Sparwood, where Teck’s local headquarters (and the Elkview, Line Creek and Greenhills mines) are located, is a town of 3,500 people, 475 of which are over 65, according to 2016 census figures. Nearly 4,000 of Cranbrook’s 24,000 residents are over 65. Approximately 666 people in Fernie are over 65.
The East Kootenay Regional Hospital in Cranbrook is equipped with six ICU beds (77 total). All of them, according to Interior Health figures, are at or near 100 per cent capacity already, a situation mirrored at the Elk Valley Hospital (Fernie) and the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital (Trail). Chronic pulmonary disease and pneumonia are among the most common reasons for inpatient treatment at these hospitals, conditions which increase the risk of contracting COVID-19. With the current testing shortage and widespread misinformation, the local population profile and a limited number of beds (and an almost total lack of ventilators), the region is particularly vulnerable.
“We can’t test! Don’t wait for a positive!,” one local nurse practitioner posted this week, adding that swabbing of “high-risk patients” had only just begun, in a limited supply. “We have no capacity to handle the outbreak that is coming,” a local GP adds. “Once we have our first positive case, there will have been hundreds of people exposed.”
The Elk Valley now has two rumoured positive tests. At least one of them passed through Teck Resources Ltd.
Teck representatives Robin Sheremeta (vice-president of coal) and Nic Milligan (manager of community and governmental affairs) were contacted for this story for comment. As of March 20 no response has been received. Teck Resources’ media office responded on March 16 with a list of the measures outlined in the next day’s press release, and as of March 20 has not responded to further follow-ups.
Update Saturday March 21, 2020 at 11:40 a.m. PST: This article was updated to include comment from Karl Hardt of Interior Health. This article was also updated to include reference to Teck’s 500-person Elk Valley Lodge work camp.
Reports on selenium concentrations in area waterways have levels at the maximum or above drinking water guidelines. Two are four times higher
The Canadian Press
Bob WeberMarch 8, 2020
10:56 AM EDT
Teck Resources says it’s baffled over the virtual disappearance of a rare fish from a lengthy stretch of a long-contaminated river downstream from the company’s coal-mining operations in southeastern British Columbia.
A recent survey of cutthroat trout, a species of special concern, in the Fording River immediately downstream from the mines found numbers of the prized game fish have unexpectedly collapsed. Stretches of river that teemed with hundreds of adults and juveniles were empty of fish two years later.
Survey teams working for the company in 2017 estimated 76 adult fish per kilometre in the 60-kilometre stretch of river from Teck’s four mines to the town of Elkford, B.C. By late 2019, the estimate was nine.
Over the entire distance, water that held nearly 3,700 fish in the fall of 2017 had just 66 by last October.
“We found that it was 74 per cent lower for juveniles and 93 per cent lower for adults,” said Teck spokesman Doug Brown. “We don’t know what factors contributed to that.”
Contamination from Teck’s mines into the rivers of the Elk River watershed are a long-standing problem. Coal mining releases selenium, an element which in large amounts is toxic to wildlife and humans.
Reports on selenium concentrations in area waterways have levels at the maximum or above B.C.’s drinking water guidelines. Two are four times higher.
Elk River water monitoring stations near the mines have reported levels 50 times what’s recommended for aquatic health. Near the city of Fernie, B.C., readings have in the past reached 10 times that.
Brown said Teck plans to spend more than $1 billion by 2024 to clean up its effluent. A malfunctioning water treatment plant has been repaired and two new plants are to be operating by the end of the year, he said.
We are behind on implementation because of the challenges we faced with the first facility
“Once we reach that point, we expect to see some really significant reductions in selenium downstream,” Brown said. “We are behind on implementation because of the challenges we faced with the first facility.”
Selenium isn’t the only problem. Mining effluent causes calcification in which the loose, pebbly stream bottoms trout need to lay eggs harden over.
Neither issue is new and Brown said nothing changed in the last couple of years to account for the near-disappearance of one of the few remaining genetically pure stocks of one of Western Canada’s iconic species.
“We don’t know if it involves water-quality issues related to mines or if it’s natural causes, predation, climate change … That’s the work we need to do to fully understand what of those factors is playing a role.”
The collapse was, however, predicted.
“The upper Fording River population of westslope cutthroat trout is in a critical downward spiral,” wrote an Environment Canada expert in 2014.
“Further increases in waterborne and fish tissue concentrations (of selenium) can only lead to one outcome … total population collapse.”
The B.C. government said it’s aware of and concerned about the fish. Monitoring programs with Teck and the Ktunaxa First Nation are being set up, said Environment Department spokesman David Karn.
“(The province) is working with other provincial and federal agencies to review and oversee the short-term mitigation actions and determination of cause, as well as proposed fish population studies in 2020,” he said.
Teck now reports every two weeks to the provinces on work by third-party investigators, said Karn.
Companies can operate mines in the province without any assurance they can cover the full costs of reclamation activities and a new annual report — which finds liabilities have grown to $2.8 billion — is emboldening calls for regulatory reform.
Mar 6, 2020
British Columbians are still on the hook for more than $1 billion in clean-up costs for the province’s mines, according to a new report from B.C.’s Chief Inspector of Mines. The recently released 2018 annual report says the province has secured $1.6 billion in bonds from mining companies to cover land reclamation costs but estimates the total cost of reclamation is $2.8 billion.
If a mining company goes bankrupt, taxpayers are left to deal with abandoned mines or contaminated sites like the Mount Washington copper mine on Vancouver Island, abandoned by Japanese investors in the 1960s after three years of operation.
Criticism of B.C.’s antiquated mining laws has heightened in recent years, especially following the collapse of a tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine, which sent 24 billion litres of contaminated wastewater into the local environment, including Quesnel Lake, important habitat for sockeye salmon and a source of drinking water. The B.C. public shouldered $40 million in cleanup costs for the disaster and no charges or financial penalties were levied against Mount Polley owner and operator Imperial Metals.
No ‘hard commitment’ to cleanupThe chief inspector’s new report adds all the more urgency to discussions taking place in the provincial government around mining reform, said Allen Edzerza, a member of the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council and a citizen of the Tahltan Nation.
“Each of these mines requires a closure plan be developed as part of the initial process to get permitted and licenced,” Edzerza told The Narwhal. “You should have cash, you should have bonds, you should have insurance. If they want to create a fund and have some public money involved, that’s their decision. The point is it should be a hard commitment.”
The council has previously called for reforms to mining laws to recognize Indigenous title and land rights, to better include First Nations in the licencing process and to align with B.C.’s new legislation to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Economist Jason Dion, who contributed to the council’s recent report on financial assurance and mines, said there is some cause for celebration in the chief inspector’s report. The province’s reclamation bonds increased by $400 million between 2016 and 2018, Dion pointed out. “That’s an awful lot of money,” he said.
The total liabilities from B.C.’s mines have increased from $2.1 billion in 2014 to $2.8 billion, according to the report, while the gap between funds secured in reclamation bonds and the estimated amount of money the province would have to pay for clean-up dropped from $1.6 billion to $1.2 billion.
Dion said it’s more challenging to procure financial assurance for existing mines, noting B.C. should create more stringent regulations for future mines.
Quebec introduced reforms to require full financial assurance and “the sky has not fallen,” he said.
B.C. considers mining reformsIn May 2019 a coalition of 30 groups released a report calling for 69 specific reforms to B.C.’s mining laws, including a requirement that mining companies provide security for
100 per cent of independently verified cleanup and reclamation cost estimates before operations begin. The group also recommended estimated reclamation costs and securities be publicly disclosed and the province require companies to carry private insurance to cover unplanned events, such as a tailings spill.
The province is currently considering reforms to B.C.’s mining laws but, according to a government intentions paper, reforms will not address growing reclamation liabilities. New legislation is expected at some point in 2020.
In a previous interview with The Narwhal, Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, said B.C. needs better assurances from prospective mining companies that they will assume responsibility for the environmental impact of their operations.
“You need to have a guarantee that, when the mine closes up, it’s not going to leave the long-term problems that we’ve seen all over the province,” Sandborn said. “The history of mining in B.C. has been that companies come in and get the quick profit and just leave the cost to the taxpayers.”
“When are they going to ensure the polluter pays rather than taxpayers picking up the tab?”
A wastewater pond at the abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine where contaminants have been leaking into a tributary of the salmon-rich Taku River for 60 years. The Narwhal visited the site of the mine in the summer of 2019. Photo: Colin Arisman / The Narwhal
Tougher rules, better mines?While reforms could decrease mining activity, Dion said it would likely be because tougher requirements would weed out environmentally risky projects proposed by companies that can’t bear the cost of their own risks.
Edzerza believes strengthening mining regulations would increase public confidence in the industry.
“First Nations have never said they don’t support mining. They really do want to have responsible mining goals, and ones that recognize the environment is not to be compromised,” he said.
The First Nations Energy and Mining Council’s most recent report suggests First Nations should demand full financial assurances from companies wanting to mine in Indigenous territories, through the negotiation of impact and benefits agreements.
Edzerza said he has growing confidence in First Nations’ ability to assert self-governance after watching how Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are asserting sovereignty over their lands.
The hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline are now working with the provincial and federal governments to draft an expedited rights and title agreement, he pointed out.
“The Wet’suwet’en are leading the charge right now, taking the government on.”
The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.
The NDP government’s 2020 budget forecasts revenue from mineral tax and fees will decline 29 per cent over 2020 and 2021, due to predictions that coal prices will fall while production costs rise.
Dion said part of the reason the province doesn’t require full remediation costs from companies is because it sees some financial security in the mines themselves, which could be re-sold.
“Falling commodity prices don’t help with the risk of that unsecured portion of remediation,” he said.
Update March 9, 2020 at 10:42 a.m. PST: This article was updated to clarify that the total liabilities from B.C.’s mines have increased from $2.1 billion to $2.8 billion between 2014 and 2018 and not 2016 and 2018 as may have been inferred.
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
Connect with us
Provide your email to get updates on the campaign.