For decades B.C. failed to address selenium pollution in the Elk Valley. Now no one knows how to sto

There are no viable solutions to stop the tide of selenium leaching into Canadian and U.S. water from a 100-kilometre stretch of coal mines owned and operated by mining giant Teck Resources. Deformed fish, a potential fish population collapse and contaminated drinking water signal more trouble to come

If you follow the crystalline waters of the Fording River up the Elk Valley, past Josephine Falls, you’ll discover a small pocket of genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout prized by fly fishers from around the world.

The species is known for sparse, dark freckles that run along the contours of an arched back and the signature orange-pink slits that gouge both sides of its throat. Small teeth line the entirety of its mouth, even under the tongue.

“Cutties,” as they’re affectionately referred to in the bustling fly fishing shops in Fernie, are thought to be one of the first fish species to populate British Columbia after the last ice age. Now found in only in a small fragment of its historic habitat, the species is widely understood to be an indicator of ecosystem health. Pacific populations are currently listed by the federal government as a species of special concern.

The meandering oxbows of the Upper Fording have created the unique conditions for this particular population of westslope cutthroat trout to remain genetically distinct, not having bred or ‘hybridized’ with other nearby populations. Yet these very same gentle waters now threaten to bring an end to this particular lineage of westslope cutthroat trout, first noted in the journals of Lewis and Clark and christened with the scientific name Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi.

Selenium pollution, leaching from manmade mountains of waste rock, has inundated the waterways of the Elk Valley, depositing itself in the docile currents of the Fording and Elk Rivers.

“We’ve got westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout throughout the lower reaches of the Elk River,” says Lars Sander-Green, an analyst with the local conservation group Wildsight. “The fish are basically concentrating that selenium both in their tissues but, more importantly, in their eggs and in their ovaries that will cause birth defects and reproductive failures.”

Standing beside a snowy bend in the Upper Fording River, Sander-Green explains how selenium builds throughout the food chain. First, it settles in slow moving waters where it is converted into organic compounds by bacteria. It is then taken up by algae which are eaten by bugs which, in turn, are eaten by fish.

“The main concerns people have with selenium are mostly about the fish,” says the unassuming, soft-spoken analyst with a degree in physics and a penchant for data sets.

As the contaminant accumulates in trout it can lead to ghastly facial and spinal deformities, an absence of the plates that overlay and protect the fish’s fleshy gills and — where deformities make survival impossible — death.

In 2014 an expert report prepared for Environment Canada warned that selenium pollution from mining in the Elk Valley was negatively impacting fish. The report warned that increases in selenium pollution would inevitably lead to “a total population collapse of sensitive species like the westslope cutthroat trout.”

Selenium is often found in coal rich deposits like those underlying much of the Elk Valley, where Teck Resources owns and operates five sprawling metallurgical coal mines. To get at those blackened seams, Teck employs a technique known as cross-valley fill, a bucolic euphemism for mountaintop removal mining.

The mines, easily visible in satellite imagery, are staggering in their scope. Mountains are cut down and blasted into terraced slopes that are slowly separated into piles: marketable coal and spoil. Anything not deemed to be of commercial value is trucked by heavy hauler out to piles that eventually grow into jagged black pyramids — manufactured shapes that do a poor job of mimicking the former mountainsides.

Teck Resources is the world’s second-largest exporter of coal for use in steelmaking, with much of the resource making its way by train to the Westshore Terminals beside the familiar docks of the Tsawwassen ferry. Teck’s Elk Valley mines are some of the largest in Canada — and are poised to expand, despite rising concerns about their growing impact on fish and drinking water.

“With this kind of coal mining, open pit or mountaintop removal, there’s a lot of rock between the mountain and the coal,” says Sander-Green, hands tucked into his pockets and shoulders slightly gathered about his neck in an effort to fend off the unseasonable October cold.

“You blast that and truck it over to the next valley, they fill in the mountain valley with this waste rock…and with coal, often there’s some selenium in the rocks…The water trickles down and slowly leaches selenium out of those rocks. It ends up flowing down into these bigger rivers like the Elk and Fording Rivers all the way down into Lake Koocanusa [a reservoir created by Montana’s Libby Dam].”

The expansive waste rock piles filling in low-lying areas of the Elk Valley are exposed to air and water — the elements necessary to move selenium — all year round. The result is a monumental selenium spill in slow motion.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element and is essential to human health in very small doses but can become toxic at higher levels. It is harmful to aquatic life and other egg-laying creatures, even at low levels. 

In order to safeguard aquatic life, B.C.’s water quality guidelinesrecommend selenium levels not exceed two parts per billion. Those same guidelines limit selenium in drinking water to 10 parts per billion. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines set safe limits for aquatic life at 5 parts per billion.

Measurements taken throughout the Elk Valley have found selenium levels at 50 or 70 parts per billion. In many cases, levels are higher than 100 parts per billion. (A 2013 study found selenium levels in rivers upstream of the mines at 1 part per billion).

Yet the B.C. government continues to sanction the expansion of Teck’s mining operations, despite a failed water treatment experiment by the company and a distressing new problem: the contamination of drinking water.

Private wells on local farms and a municipal well in the district of Sparwood, home to many of the miners working at Teck’s operations, have been taken offline after showing selenium levels higher than 10 parts per billion, well in excess of what is considered safe for human consumption.

Doug Hill, regional director of mining operations with the B.C. Ministry of Environment, says exceeding B.C.’s water quality guidelines for selenium is not enough of a reason to slow down mining activities.

We’re already over our numbers that we want to see,” Hill says in an interview, before issuing a quick reminder: “Our water quality guidelines, they’re not law in and of themselves. They are used as benchmarks to assess the impacts of mining projects on water quality.”

Asked if he anticipates more contaminated sources of drinking water, Hill hesitates.

“I couldn’t say that we’re at a point now with our groundwater monitoring that we could accurately predict that.”

Bill Hanlon, a local horse breeder and conservationist, manages a property just outside of Sparwood that is a popular destination for hunters seeking proximity to game in the Elk Valley, which is class one bighorn sheep winter range. The private well on that property is contaminated.

“This property here has some of the highest selenium measurements. They test it regularly,” Hanlon says. 

The property is on the opposite side of the river from the coal mines, prompting Hanlon to ask, “…why is the selenium going this far out in the gravel bed river system?”

Hill says Teck conducted a 2017 groundwater study, currently under review, that will be used by the company to create a “conceptual model” for how groundwater flows and moves throughout the valley.

“It’s complicated,” Hill explains. “The geology there isn’t simple to understand. The selenium is going to behave differently in groundwater than in surface water.”

Hanlon, who is also the chair of the British Columbia Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, says he’s worried by proposals for three new coal mines by three new companies in the Elk Valley. “If we lose this river, if it tips…there’s a lot of livelihood based on this area and on the river itself.”

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by Carol Linnitt