Mountains to ocean: A dispatch from Canadian coal country

Here's how piles of coal in Vancouver harbor connect back to a multinational mining company with operations in Alaska.

Mountains to ocean: A dispatch from Canadian coal country
The town of Fernie in British Columbia’s Elk Valley, a major global coal mining hub. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

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A few months ago, I was on vacation in Vancouver, riding a bike along the north shore of the city’s harbor. It’s Canada’s largest and a major port, with cranes and warehouses along the water’s edge and cargo vessels anchored offshore.

At a certain point, I took a look back toward the water and beheld a sight that stuck in my memory. It was mountains of what looked like coal, piled up along the water.

Coal: We hear and read so much about it and its role in warming the global climate. But it was a new experience for me to see it in person, at scale. It made an impression on me — the piles were both towering if you stopped to look at them, and at the same time, barely distinguishable from the loading infrastructure that surrounded it. In a car, it would have been easy to drive past without noticing.

I pulled over and pulled up Google Maps, which informed me I was standing above the Neptune Terminals, which, also according to Google, ship “potash and steelmaking coal to locations worldwide.”

I took a haphazard iPhone photo and rode away toward my more conventionally scenic destination, satisfied that a small link in the global energy supply chain had revealed itself to me.

Look closely and you can see the coal piled up under the green machine. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

This is a quick story about how a few more of those links unexpectedly materialized over the weekend — and how they connect, at least peripherally, to Alaska.

For the next several days, I have a cross-country skiing-related reporting assignment in Canmore, in the Canadian Rockies.

The town is also located just a few hours drive from Fernie, British Columbia — an out-of-the-way ski town that also happens to be the home of one of my good friends from childhood, Graham Preston.

I’d always wanted to check out Fernie. So I booked my tickets to Calgary a couple of days early, picked up my rental car and started driving. As the kilometers ticked by, the prairie gave way to rolling hills, then, presumably, mountains, obscured by the rain and low clouds.

Twenty miles outside Fernie, a sign caught my eye: “Elkview Operations - Teck.”

That’s Teck, as in the multinational mining company with projects all over Canada and in Peru, Chile, and…Northwest Alaska. I’ve written a number of stories about Teck over the years because they operate the huge Red Dog mine in the tundra north of Kotzebue, on land owned by NANA, the regional Alaska Native-owned corporation.

The mine has generated more than $1 billion for NANA and has been hailed as a model for Indigenous-owned resource development partnerships, even as leaders in the only community downstream, the Iñupiat village of Kivalina, have long questioned the safety of their water supply and the benefits they receive from the development. So, naturally, I was curious what Teck was up to near Fernie.

It didn’t take long to find out. I showed up at Graham’s house in time for the end of brunch, where he and his roommates were happy to fill me in. Fernie isn’t just a ski town, and the surrounding Elk Valley isn’t just a recreation destination: It’s also a major coal mining hub. Teck has four separate mines in the area that supply not the thermal coal used in power plants but metallurgical coal, which has long been used in the industrial process of making steel.

Teck says some 72% of global steel production relies on metallurgical coal, though the process generates a substantial fraction of the world’s carbon emissions and companies are now exploring less-polluting options that rely on renewable electricity.

Some of Teck’s coal operations in the Elk Valley, as seen in satellite imagery. The mining sites are not visible from the major highway that runs through the Elk Valley. (Google Maps, imagery from Airbus, CNES/Airbus, District of Sparwood, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, Province of British Columbia, S. Alberta MDE31s and Counties, Teck Coal Ltd.)

The main topic of conversation, over crepes, was a huge business deal: Teck, which is headquartered in Canada, is selling off its entire $9 billion Elk Valley coal business, most of it to a Swiss mining and trading firm called Glencore. This has prompted big questions for Elk Valley residents: Will Glencore be as good of a corporate citizen as Teck? Will they hire as many local workers? Can we trust them?

Over two days in Fernie, coal’s importance to the place sank in.

Its economic impact is enormous: The Elk Valley’s entire population, scattered across several towns, is some 17,000 people, and more than 4,000 people work for Teck’s mines. The area produces one-sixth of all the metallurgical coal used in the international steelmaking industry, according to a regional economic development group. Teck says the region contains enough coal to support decades of additional mining.

I got unreasonably excited when my friends told me that each train load of coal — which can string together upwards of 100 cars — is worth millions of dollars, with multiple trains leaving each day. I continually needled Graham about making sure I saw a coal train before I left the area, which finally happened as we were paddling along the Elk River on Sunday afternoon. As I said: unreasonably excited.

A coal train rolls along the Elk River in British Columbia. (Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

That evening, I wound down from train-related exhilaration in the same way that most people do: Reading business news about multinational mining companies and a 148-page technical report on one of Teck’s Elk Valley mines.

Among the interesting takeaways were the dynamics driving Teck’s sale of its coal business to Glencore — namely, Teck’s desire to ditch a chunk of its portfolio that’s profitable but, because of its dependence on a climate-warming fossil fuel, also under pressure from investors.

Teck, like many of its competitors in the mining industry, has a goal of producing net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; in Alaska, it’s exploring the possibility of generating power with solar and wind at Red Dog mine to replace expensive, shipped-in diesel fuel. After the Glencore deal, Teck says it will be a “Canadian-based critical minerals champion” focused on metals needed for the green transition, like copper.

Another thing that caught my eye in the technical report was a line about fish: “Census data obtained in late 2019 showed unexpected and substantial reductions in populations of Westslope Cutthroat trout in some mine-affected waters in the Elk Valley.”

This led me down another deep internet rabbit hole. Elk Valley coal mines are contending with a major pollution problem from selenium, which flows out of the mines’ waste rock and threatens fish populations.

Those fish are not just in Canada but also in Montana, which sits downstream of Teck’s coal mines; scientists said in 2020 that permits for Elk Valley allowed discharges at up to 65 times above scientifically established protective thresholds for fish. Teck, meanwhile, has spent more than $1 billion on a water quality plan, with gross profits of $6.4 billion from Elk Valley in 2022.

The effects in Montana make this a “transboundary” problem, much like those in Southeast Alaska, where conservation and tribal groups are pushing the Biden administration to refer issues related to other British Columbia mines to an international treaty organization. The U.S. Department of State has already pushed for such a referral for the Elk Valley coal mines.

Glencore will inherit these problems. And critics of Teck’s environmental record, including tribal leaders from the coal mines’ watershed, say they’re watching closely to see how the new owners will manage them.

I was almost at the bottom of the rabbit hole. But there was one last thing that ties this dispatch back to the beginning — to those piles of coal at the Neptune facility that I saw on my Vancouver bike ride.

The “final rail destination” for those vaunted coal trains, according to the technical report? Vancouver! Specifically, two export facilities, one of which is the Neptune Bulk Terminals.

As it turns out, a Teck subsidiary, Teck Coal Partnership, owns a big chunk of the terminals — 46%, according to the technical report.

Which means that those mountains of coal lying on the Vancouver docks were dug from the mountains of the Elk Valley.

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