British Columbia

Mount Polley spill: Testing finds elevated selenium in fish

Higher levels are likely naturally occurring, not a threat to human health, province says.

Higher levels are likely naturally occurring, not a threat to human health, province says

The tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., released 10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden sand, contaminating lakes, creeks and rivers in the region. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Fish from Quesnel Lake and Polley Lake, downstream from the Mount Polley mine spill, have elevated levels of selenium, arsenic and copper among other elements, but there is no threat to human health, according to the B.C.  government.

The fish tissue analyzed shows an elevated level of selenium in the livers and gonads that exceed guidelines for human consumption. But the province says the elevated levels are similar to those found in the lakes before the spill.

"These results are to be expected for fish from Quesnel and Polley lakes," says a release from the Ministry of Environment. "When these results were compared to a 2013 report of fish flesh, gonad and liver data, similar levels of selenium in excess of the guideline for human consumption were found.

"The sampled fish also show slightly higher levels of arsenic, copper, manganese and zinc when compared to fish sampled from 54 other lakes throughout the province, but are still within human consumption guidelines."

The ministry says the elevated levels likely have more to do with the local geology than the recent breach at the Mount Polley tailings pond.

"The local geology where mines are located often have elevated levels of metals, meaning naturally occurring metal concentrations in local water bodies could be much greater in this region than elsewhere in the province," the release says.

Safer to remove livers, gonads

Interior Health and the Ministry of Environment reiterate the fish are safe to eat, and anyone who wants to take extra precautions can remove the liver or gonads of the fish.

An aerial view of the Mount Polley mine tailings pond shows the area where the earthen wall gave way early on the morning of August 4. (Ministry of the Environment)

"A person would need to consume about one cup of lake trout and rainbow trout livers and gonads in one day in order to exceed the high-consumption threshold," said a statement released by the ministries on Friday morning.

"By comparison, consumption of one cup of lake trout or rainbow trout flesh (not including livers and gonads) per day does not exceed the guideline."

Previous bans on water use in the region have already been lifted.

The tailings pond breach on Aug. 4 near the town of Likely, B.C., released 10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden sand, contaminating lakes, creeks and rivers in the region.

Activist remains concerned

But not everyone agrees with the government's findings. Earlier this week wild salmon advocate Alexander Morton said she found a strange blue film on the surface of the lake that needs to be investigated.   

"People need to know what this blue film is because it's oil based. It looks like a wax that has dried on the lake. It cracks when you touch it," said Morton earlier this week.

"People in town are wearing masks. They're very, very nervous. So, I think a lot more information needs to come out and I think this needs to be cleaned up."

Morton says that when she touched the blue film it burned her hand, and she's written to Interior Health about the situation.

Dr. Sue Pollock, medical health officer with Interior Health, says the authority has been working with the Ministry of Environment to determine what is causing the sheen.

"If decaying debris is the reason, we would not expect this to impact water quality or pose a health hazard," Pollock said. "We have asked for additional testing to be done from the Ministry of Environment so we can make a full public assessment."

Environment Ministry manager Jennifer McGuire said ministry tests on one sample had so far shown the blue sheen was likely caused by decaying debris.

"Based upon our physical observations as well as the one lab result, and the experience of the staff that have seen vegetation that has been decomposing, we believe it to be of an organic matter, which is related to the vegetation and the trees that did come down during the tailings breach," McGuire said.

On Friday Morton said she remains concerned about contamination in the lakes.

"The B.C. government's first response was that all the grey slurry pouring out of the mine was just sand, no different than an avalanche and that we got 'lucky' — the water is safe to drink," said a statement released by Morton.               

"That is not at all what the situation looks like and the people in the area and downstream have virtually no confidence in the B.C. government's assessment. The federal government is completely missing in action — a stunning silence."


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