Selenium in our water: Wildsight calls for halt to new mines in the Elk Valley

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Posted in:  Conservation, Water

In light of recent charges brought against Teck under the Fisheries Act for fish deaths resulting from the failure of their selenium treatment plant in 2014, Wildsight and the Flathead Wild Coalition are renewing their call for a halt to new coal mines in the Elk River Valley.

Selenium levels in the Elk River watershed continue to be a serious threat to fish populations not only in Canada but also in the Koocanusa reservoir and the Kootenai River in the United States.
Despite more than three years of operations at West Line Creek, Teck’s treatment process has still not safely solved the selenium problem from that mine. Selenium-leaching waste rock dumps at all five of Teck’s Elk Valley mines continue to grow – and selenium levels in the Elk River and downstream continue to increase.

“Teck must do more to make sure selenium levels downstream of waste rock dumps are safe for fish,” said Ryland Nelson, Wildsight’s Southern Rockies Program Manager. “We hope Environment Canada will continue their enforcement actions to push Teck to fix their water pollution problems.”

Meanwhile, expansions at four of Teck’s five open-pit coal mines in the Elk Valley have recently been approved by the BC government and three new mines from other companies have been proposed, with more exploration ongoing.

“Without a proven, reliable selenium treatment method, increased mining in the area is unthinkable,” said Nelson. “It is time for the BC government to stop entertaining new mines.”

Selenium levels in the Elk River currently far exceed BC’s water quality guidelines. Levels in the Koocanusa Reservoir, which spans the border, have exceeded US Environmental Protection Agency criteria.
“Excessive selenium levels, which have been found in fish tissue on both sides of the border, threaten reproduction and cause spinal and gill deformations in trout and other fish species,” said Ric Hauer, Professor of Limnology at the University of Montana. “Absent effective treatment, selenium is expected to continue leaching from waste rock dumps for generations.”

“The BC government must step up and do much more to defend clean water and the world-class wildlife connectivity and habitat in the region, instead of just approving more and more mining,” said Candace Batycki of Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

The Elk River Valley and the adjacent Flathead River Valley, in the southeastern corner of British Columbia, are part of a critical connectivity corridor for wildlife along the Rocky Mountains that spans across the Canada-USl border. Large open-pit coal mines and unsustainable logging practices threaten not just water, fish and other aquatic species, but connectivity and habitat for grizzly bears and other mammals. The Elk and Flathead valleys are an important part of the Crown of the Continent region that includes the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Flathead Wild is a coalition of six Canadian and US conservation groups: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – BC Chapter, Headwaters Montana, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club BC, Wildsight, and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

Photo by Garth Lenz, ILCP