Opinion: Mining company Teck’s “Copper and Health” project at UBC isn’t as clean as it looks

Tova Gaster is a fourth-year history and environmental geography student and the science editor for The Ubyssey.

In March 2022, UBC and mining company Teck Resources Ltd. announced a research partnership to install copper coatings on high-touch surfaces in applied science buildings. The project’s stated purpose is to reduce the spread of germs using copper’s antibacterial properties. 

While antibacterial copper has useful applications in high-health risk areas like hospitals, the project also gives Teck an opportunity to distract from recent headlines and clean up its public image, which has been tarnished by several high-profile human rights and environmental violations.

After years of pollution from Teck coal mines, the trout population in BC’s Elk Valley watershed — which is deeply important to the Ktunaxa First Nation — is nearing total collapse. An investigation by The Narwhal also revealed that Teck and the B.C. government lobbied the federal government against investigating Teck’s water pollution, which impacts water safety and public health on both sides of the Canada/United States border. In 2024, Teck sold most of the stake in the mines to another transnational mining company, leaving it unclear who will clean up the mess. 

Teck also invests heavily in research, education and development at UBC. 

While the Copper and Health project is relatively innocuous on its own, it’s part of a disturbing trend: fossil fuel corporations like Teck donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to UBC research and operations each year. 

UBC declared a climate emergency in 2020 but has so far failed to decisively interrogate its own relationships with the companies that drive it. 

To address the climate crisis, we must transition away from fossil fuels and towards equitable and democratic renewable energy systems. To do so requires eroding the social and economic power of the fossil fuel industry, which by nature will continue business as usual to maximize profit margins even as ecosystems collapse around us. 

When companies like Teck donate to institutions like UBC, they get a boost to their public images — and Teck has been upfront that the UBC Copper and Health project is a PR move. Its website states the project goals include “highlighting Teck’s involvement in creating safer public spaces.” 

According to researchers, the Copper and Health project aims to decrease bacterial transmission in high-risk areas such as hospitals, where sterility can be the difference between life and death. This is an important mission.

The fact that Teck is leveraging its connections to UBC to explicitly brand itself as a public health hero should raise questions, especially when companies like Teck consistently act as the biggest obstacles to climate action.

Teck profits from mining fossil fuels and metals, including coal and bitumen. Its sector pollutes waterways, destroys ecosystems and raises global temperatures to increase the frequency and costs of devastating disasters each year. 

According to a 2022 Health Canada report, the climate crisis represents a direct threat to health and wellness — risks which hurt BIPOC, disabled people and other marginalized communities more than others. 

While Teck is increasingly transitioning its dirty coal portfolio into copper mining— a key component of batteries for renewable energy storage — that transition remains slow

In recent years, Teck has begun to invest heavily in metals mining. It owns four major copper mines — a demonstrable incentive to position Teck Copper as a symbol for health and cleanliness, a more marketable narrative than its ongoing history of pollution and human rights violations.

Teck’s copper mines have also been plagued by ecological and human rights issues. The Quebrada Blanca Phase 2 project in Northern Chile was fined $1.2 million in 2019 for environmental violations, and in 2021 regulators served the company with eight different environment-related legal charges. This followed years of condemnation for poor labour practices and legal opposition to the mine expansion from the Indigenous Ollagüe people, who assert they were not consulted in its approval process.

This is the same copper which coats UBC door handles in the name of public health.

The Copper and Health project is only the latest development in a long partnership between Teck and UBC. Beyond funding research, Teck was one of the major corporate donors to UBC’s 2008-2015 “Start an Evolution” fundraising campaign. It also funds scholarships, including the recently-announced $2M Don Lindsay Teck Award in Mining Engineering, designed to attract engineering students to the company. 

Former Teck executives are also employed in high-level positions at UBC. They include a former Teck vice president who left the company to found the Canadian International Resources and Development Institute at UBC, which provides research, training and ‘public administration reform’ to world governments on mining governance issues.

Mining research and policy impacts labour rights, Indigenous sovereignty and global environmental health. Research and policymaking around mining should not be left to those who stand directly to profit from it.

This is an opinion article. It reflects only the author's views and does not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Have something to say about what you just read? Contribute to the conversation and send a letter to the editor in response or your own submission at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.