Pump failure kills more than 9,000 fish at University of Alberta facility

A malfunction in two dechlorination pumps at a University of Alberta research facility has killed more than 9,000 fish, delaying some research for up to six months.

Chlorine 'tragedy' could delay some research by months, officials concede

The University of Alberta says an electrical short in an aquatics research facility has killed more than 9,000 fish. (completegoldfishcare)

A malfunction in two dechlorination pumps at a University of Alberta research facility has killed more than 9,000 fish, delaying some research for up to six months.

Between 4 p.m. May 12 and 8 a.m. May 13, the freshwater fish tanks located in the Biological Sciences aquatics facility were flooded with chlorinated municipal tap water, resulting in significant mortality among the fish and frogs that were housed there, the U of A said in a statement Tuesday.

An electrical switch that provides power to a pump that dechlorinates the water failed due to corrosion, stopping the pump.

The chlorine found in the domestic water supply is toxic to the fish and frogs and, without the dechlorination pumps in service, levels became fatal within 30 minutes.

"We are very unlucky this time," Lorne Babiuk, the university's vice-president of research, said in an interview. "We are quite confident that it will not happen again."

The losses in the facility include:

  • 75 frogs (with 15 survivors)
  • 1,093 adult trout and about 6,000 fingerlings
  • 96 carp (64 survivors)
  • 2,073 goldfish (163 survivors)
  • 6 graylings

The full extent of the damage is not known. Babiuk said the university is launching an investigation into the incident.

The pump failure is the latest malfunction to hit the university. A freezer failure in April resulted in the damage of its ice core collection overnight. Babiuk stressed the two malfunctions are not connected.

Babiuk said the aquatics facility incident also means "thousands of dollars" worth of lost time and research by graduate students and university staff.

Fish used in fracking research

He said those hardest hit are graduate students whose research went "down the drain." Some students could see their work pushed back for six months to a year, he said.

Greg Goss, a professor in the university's department of Biological Sciences, said in a news release that it's "impossible to do this type of research" on the environmental impact of hydraulic fracking without the fish at the university.

Recently, Goss was asked about his research by colleagues in Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil.

"Fisheries are a key sentinel for a healthy ecosystem," Goss said.

System had been flagged

Walter Dixon, a professor of agricultural sciences, described the loss as a "tragedy" never seen before at the U of A.

He and Babiuk both said they believed the dechlorination system had been working well until the accident.

But according to an article on the U of A website, the water treatment system had been flagged as a "serious recommendation" by the Canadian Council for Animal Care, the national organization responsible for setting, maintaining, and overseeing standards for animal ethics and care in science throughout Canada.

The CCAC advised the university to stop all research until it installs fail-safe measures and alarms to protect its freshwater fish.

Facility built in 1969

Dixon said the infrastructure in the research facility dates from 1969 but has been "moving up the priority list" for some time because of pre-existing problems.

Since the incident, the university has replaced the faulty pumps and installed a temporary alarm to warn staff of a future system failure. The university also plans to add a chlorine alarm system that will be in place in the next four to six weeks, Babiuk said.

The university has a backlog of $938 million in maintenance projects, Babiuk added.

Last fall, the U of A received $82.5 million for infrastructure from the federal government's post-secondary institutions strategic investment fund, with $9 million earmarked for improving the biological sciences labs.