Glencore’s acquisition of Canadian mining giant Teck Resources’ coal business last month has led to a litany of environmental concerns, and a B.C. lawyer says the federal government must ensure taxpayers aren’t left footing the cleanup bill.

“The big problem is the potential financial liability that taxpayers might face in paying for a cleanup that is not secured,” Calvin Sandborn, former legal director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre, told BNN Bloomberg.

“Because the mining industry, being volatile, we have companies that go bankrupt, and they leave the taxpayer holding the bag.”

For years, waste rock from Teck’s coal mines in British Columbia’s Elk Valley has been leeching selenium – a chemical element found in coal that is toxic to aquatic life – into the watershed, causing major environmental problems.

“It’s actually one of the most significant water pollution problems in North America, and in fact, in the world it’s one of the worst selenium pollution problems globally,” Sandborn said.

Sandborn added that the leeching impacts not only the local Elk Valley water supply in B.C., but areas further downstream in Montana and Idaho.

The issue has become a sore spot for Canada-U.S. relations, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden both making commitments to address the problem.

Prior to Glencore’s acquisition of their coal mining operations, Teck had spent more than $1 billion in an attempt to remedy the problem, but Sandborn said they’ve been unsuccessful thus far, and selenium levels are “still not satisfactory.”


Sandborn said that the federal government should only approve of Glencore’s acquisition of Teck’s coal assets if there are assurances that the company will follow through with the cleanup obligations involved in the deal.

However, the Swiss-based company, and largest commodities trader in the world, has already faced a series of environmental issues within its existing Canadian operations as it’s tried to balance its highly profitable coal mining business against its climate goals.

The company has promised to cut its coal output, cut emissions and shift its focus to mining the metals needed for the green energy transition, though shareholders have shown waning interest in the plan.

Sandborn said that while Teck and Glencore will continue to look after their shareholders, the Canadian government must do the same with taxpayers, and ensure the deal includes “adequate bonding” for cleanup costs.

“The government of Canada would be remiss if they do not look after the interests of taxpayers that could end up paying for a cleanup – and we’re talking a massive problem here,” he said.

“(They) would be irresponsible to approve something that doesn’t guarantee that the polluter pays.”

With files from's Ben Cousins