The Elk River rushes south through the picturesque Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, past the communities of Elkford and Fernie and merges with the Kootenai River in Lake Koocanusa, which spans the U.S. border. Stretching almost 140 miles from its glacial origins farther north, the river is hailed as a world-class fishery for westslope cutthroat and bull trout.
The vast river basin is also a rich source for energy development. The Elk River Valley is home to five longstanding open-pit coal mines that produce 30 percent of Canada’s overall steelmaking output. The mines are lucrative operations for Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd., the country’s largest diversified mining company that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Despite depressed prices in the global market last year, Teck increased both coal sales and production by 8 percent and reported year-end revenues of $10.3 billion and gross profit before depreciation of $4 billion.
The industrial giant announced plans in 2012 to expand operations, particularly in the Elk River Valley. Four of the five mines are looking to grow and a sixth mine is being proposed.
But those prospects appear to be on shaky ground as impacts are surfacing from more than 40 years of mining near the Elk’s riverbanks.
Environment Canada, the governmental department overseeing the country’s natural resources, served a search warrant on Teck last spring in response to growing fear of toxic pollutants in the watershed, according to a recent story in The Globe and Mail.
Researchers with the Elk Valley Selenium Task Force, a group studying pollution levels in the basin, catalogued “mass deformities” of fish that were exposed to the Elk Valley tributaries in southeast British Columbia. They also discovered high levels of a metal-like element called selenium, as well as abnormal nitrate and phosphate levels.
Concerns further spiked this month following the release of a water quality and aquatic life study co-authored by two University of Montana researchers.
Data collected in the Elk River drainage shows toxic levels of selenium and sediments from the coal mines. Selenium is a naturally occurring element that can become harmful when present in elevated concentrations. It arises during the mining process and can leach into surrounding soils and groundwater. It can also be carried by rain or melting snow into the watershed.
“We were particularly concerned about selenium, mercury, cadmium, zinc and other elements associated with runoff from mining sites,” the report states.
Erin Sexton, a research scientist who recently received a conservation award for her efforts on energy development impacts on the landscape, co-authored the report with Ric Hauer, a professor of limnology. Both scientists work at the university’s Flathead Lake Biological Station. They began collecting data on the water and sediment qualities and aquatic life in the trans-boundary Flathead River Basin. Their stated goal was to research the potential effects that proposed coal mining expansion could have on the environment. The National Park Service and the state of Montana provided funds for the project and other agencies, such as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, contributed research.
Sexton and the team of scientists found several abnormalities in the Elk drainage, but especially selenium. She said data showed levels that were seven to 10 times higher in sections of the Elk River below the mines than the Flathead River. Some levels reached 70 micrograms per liter, while the river’s average was roughly 45 micrograms per liter, according to Sexton. The generally accepted level of selenium that is considered normal is just below one microgram per liter, she said. In the U.S., selenium levels are regulated by law and cannot exceed five micrograms per liter.
“From a watershed perspective or water quality perspective, it’s a crisis,” Sexton said in an interview last week. “The data shows that the river is in crisis. Certainly it’s gotten to a point where there’s a problem.”
Teck has yet to publically dispute the findings in Sexton’s report and has acknowledged “increased concentrations of selenium” observed downstream of coal mining operations in parts of the world, including at Teck sites in Alberta and British Columbia. Separate calls to the company were not returned. A spokesperson for Environment Canada could not be reached either.
When asked if her research was rooted in an inherent advocacy against coal mining, Sexton responded by pointing to the physical evidence laid out in the report.
“Nobody was looking to make a story on the Elk. We were looking to collect data. And sometimes data has a story to it,” she said.
“It was surprising to us. We thought there would be impacts from mining in the Elk. I think anybody would. I would have never projected what the numbers would have looked like, though. We thought it was going to be pristine in the Flathead and we thought (there) would be mine impact in the Elk. But the contrast was pretty phenomenal.”
Her report states the high concentrations of sulfates and selenium downstream of the Elk basin coal mines represent a “significant threat to the ecological integrity of these streams and rivers. This should be of great concern to both Environment Canada and the U.S. EPA as the Elk is a tributary to the Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa, which flows into the USA in western Montana.”
Evidence has shown these toxic pollutants can impact fish species’ skeletal structure, reproductive abilities and liver and muscle tissues, according to Sexton.
“I wouldn’t eat anything out of the Elk,” she said. “I spent four years wading around up there and taking water quality samples and I’ve seen the data.”
An over abundance of nutrients like selenium can also transform the composition of the watershed, like spurring massive algae growth, she said.
Further research is underway to determine how many metals and elements draining from the mines have accumulated in Lake Koocanusa, Sexton said.
In the wake of Sexton’s research, more questions have emerged. The investigation into the impacts of Teck coal mining is ongoing. The company recently said that it’s committed to responsibly managing pollutants and maintaining the health of the Elk River watershed. The company has announced its intention to develop a management action plan and improve water treatment and diversions projects.
“Clearly those mines are draining into the watershed,” Sexton said, adding, “To me, the multi-million dollar question is the one of threshold. Where do you reach the tipping point for the watershed? Is it six months from now? Five years? Ten years? At what point does the balance become so upset in the watershed, will the fishery crash? Will the bull trout fishery crash? Those are the very interesting questions that have not been answered at this point.”