A new study conducted by the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station concludes that the Elk River in southern British Columbia is being polluted to toxic levels by runoff from Canadian coal mines.
The study, commissioned by Glacier National Park, involved quantifying pollutants downstream from five coal mines in the Elk River.
Those pollutant levels were compared with background conditions upstream of the mines and in the neighboring North Fork Flathead drainage, where there are no mines.
The study found that nitrogen levels are 1,000 times the background rates, sulfate levels are 40 to 50 times higher and selenium levels seven to 10 times higher.
UM Professor Ric Hauer, the study leader, says the selenium levels are alarming.
Selenium is a micronutrient that is actually a vitamin supplement at low levels “but when you get into higher levels, it becomes very, very toxic,” he said.
In the Elk River, “the stage is certainly set” for impacts on fish populations even to the point of collapsing fisheries, he said.
Hauer explained that a selenium presence of 4 grams per kilogram is “ecologically significant,” but the study detected gram-per-kilogram levels in fish “that are routinely in the teens, 20s and 30s.”
Selenium can cause spinal malformations in newborn fish. Other symptoms that can show up are gill deformities and “popeye,” a condition that causes eyes to bulge, along with cataracts that can impair the vision of fish that are sight-dependent feeders.
“You can collect adults and not see manifestations in them, but the problem is how the effects show up in next generations,” he said.
Much the way mercury can accumulate in large lake trout, selenium can accumulate in the livers and reproductive systems of adult fish, causing significant declines in reproductive rates.
Selenium, Hauer said, “also becomes a hazard to other organisms, especially mammals that feed on fish, such as predatory birds like osprey or eagles or wildlife like river otters or bears.”
It is similar to mercury bio-accumulation, he said, “in that it’s being concentrated upwards in the food chain.”
There are other measurable impacts caused by pollutants downstream from the mines, including a difference in aquatic insect communities.
The headwaters of the Flathead Basin have one of the most biologically diverse aquatic insect communities in North America, with hundreds of species that have been classified. But the Elk River, located in a geologically similar drainage just to the north, has only a handful of species that are the most tolerant of pollution, Hauer said.
Hauer said the study has caused quite a stir among Canadian conservation groups, and it has gotten considerable attention among media outlets such as the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail of British Columbia.
“We’ve basically learned that the Elk River is being poisoned,” Sarah Cox, interim director of the Sierra Club of B.C., said in a Globe and Mail story. “This study ... clearly shows selenium has been collecting to toxic levels.”
In addition to the five existing coal mines in the Elk River Valley, there are four coal mine expansion proposals that are currently being reviewed. Cox is calling for a moratorium on those proposals.
The Globe and Mail reported that the British Columbia provincial government intends to work with U.S. agencies this year to monitor water quality in Lake Koocanusa, a transboundary reservoir that is partly fed by the Elk River.
Hauer said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks personnel who participated in the study have detected selenium accumulations in fish from Lake Koocanusa.
“This is the 21st century,” Hauer said. “We shouldn’t be poisoning our rivers any more.”
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.