A U.S. study has linked coal mining in the Elk River in southeast British Columbia to high levels of selenium, and that has prompted the B.C. government to order the mining company to clean up their operations.

The University of Montana study, which was commissioned by the National Park Service, aimed to measure the environmental impacts of coal mining on the Elk River, which flows south across the Canadian-U.S. border into Montana.

The study compared water quality in the Elk River, where there are five coal mines, with the neighbouring Flathead River basin, which is largely protected from industrial development.

It concluded the selenium levels in the Elk River downstream of coal mines were 10 times higher than naturally occurring levels, when compared with water upstream from the coal mines and with water in the Flathead.

The study also found nitrogen levels were 1,000 times higher and sulphate levels were 40 to 50 times higher than natural levels.

The study's co-author Richard Hauer, the Director of the Institute on Ecosystems at the University of Montana, says the study shows high levels of polluted runoff are coming from coal mining operations in the valley.

"The concentration of selenium is particularly noteworthy in that it has distinct health hazards associated with it. Selenium in very low concentrations is actually needed for life, but in higher concentrations becomes quite toxic," said Hauer.

Hauer says it's being found on the U.S. side of the border in fish far downstream from the mining operations and notes those who eat the fish can also be affected.

"We shouldn't be poisoning our rivers anymore. This is nonsense," said Hauer.

If the pollution originated in the states, companies there would face prosecution and be forced to clean things up, he said.

Element toxic to fish

Selenium is a metal found in natural deposits, such as ores, and can end up in bodies of water when discharged from refineries and mines. It is used in electronics, and trace amounts are needed for cellular function in humans.

But too much selenium is highly toxic. In fish it can lead to twisted spines, damaged gills and eyes that bulge out. It also concentrates in the ovaries, and can wipe out the next generation of fish.

The study found the selenium levels at five sites in the Elk River Basin downsteam from the coal mines ranged from 10 ug/L to 4 ug/L, compared with levels of less than 1 ug/L upstream of the coal mines.

While B.C. sets the safe level for selenium in drinking water at 10 ug/L maximum, for aquatic life, the safe level is set at 2 ug/L mean.

"The concentrations of selenium observed in the Elk Basin stream and river sites below the effects of mining exceeded both the British Columbia guidelines value of 2 ug/L and the U.S. EPA water quality standard of 5 ug/L," said the report.

"The high concentrations of sulfates and selenium in waters downstream of Elk Basin coal mines represent a significant threat to the ecological integrity of these streams and rivers," Hauer wrote.

John Bergenske, the executive director of Wildsight, an environmental organization in the Kootenays, says the Elk River has a world-class fishery, and says if nothing is done, its ecosystem could be lost.

"This has been accumulating," he said. "It's not just a matter of it flows and it's gone. The levels continue to go up and up."

Bergenske says there are already five coal mines in the Elk River valley and four expansion proposals in the works, and that's why he is calling for the B.C. government to conduct a full impact assessment.

Company developing long-term plan

In April, B.C.'s Environment Minister, Terry Lake, issued a statement acknowledging the selenium levels were a serious issue.

Lake also ordered Teck Resources, which operates the five coal mines in the area, to come up with a long-term plan to stabilize and reverse the levels of selenium, nitrate, sulphate and cadmium.

Chris Stannell, spokesman for Teck Resources, says the company responded by committing $600 million to a five-year-plan to lower the pollutants while at the same time allowing for continued sustainable mining.

"We're implementing a selenium management plan right now. It's really one of the largest water management plans in the world," said Stannell.

The plan includes the construction of six water treatment facilities at the Elk Valley operations, water diversions to keep uncontaminated water clean, ongoing monitoring of levels, and research and development to improve water quality.

As part of the program Teck has hired Vancouver-based environmental company BioteQ to pilot a new selenium removal process at its coal mines. A $900,000 test plant is being built this summer.

Jonathan Wilkinson, the CEO of BioteQ notes selenium has become a more significant environmental issue in recent years.  

"We’ve done various contaminants and metals removal around the world but this is the first time we’ve done selenium removal," he said.

Wilkinson says the issues Teck is facing are the similar to selenium concerns now affecting coal operations across North America.

 "We think the issues Teck is looking to dealing with selenium, all other coal mines in North America and coal fired power plants, which have selenium issues as well, are all going to be facing."

Map: Teck's Elk Valley coal operations


View B.C.'s coal production and exports in a larger map

Corrections

  • This story has been updated from its original version to include more information about Teck Resources' water quality management program for the Elk River valley.
    Jul 26, 2013 5:46 AM PT