Death by Coal

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Nick Didlick

The Fording River is being killed by coal.

Death by Coal: According to reports compiled by Environment Canada during a two-year investigation an estimated 180,000 cutthroat trout die in the river each year because of selenium poisoning, which causes cranial deformities.

Some of the trout hatch with such severe conditions – bent spines, missing jaws – that they can’t feed and soon die of starvation.

In some adult trout selenium has concentrated in their eggs, which become so fragile they burst on contact with water.

A Moose and calf wander along a tributary of the Elk River

The metal-like element occurs naturally, but the millions of tons of waste rock produced by coal mining activities in the Elk Valley, in southeast British Columbia, has pushed selenium levels up to 300 times higher than B.C.’s guidelines for the protection of aquatic life.

Environment Canada has been gathering data in the valley since at least 2012 according to expert witness statements prepared for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, an agency that deals with regulatory and environmental crimes.

The reports point to Teck Coal Ltd., which has five mines in the area, as the source of the selenium pollution.

To its credit, Teck has acknowledged the problem and has promised to spend $600 million over the next five years in an attempt to improve water quality.

But Teck also wants to keep expanding its mining operations and so far the water treatment plants and water diversion projects the company is using in attempt to control selenium are unproven.

Peter Krahn, a senior enforcement engineer with Environment Canada, states in an expert witness report, dated Sept. 25, 2014, that in addition to the selenium problem, Teck’s operations are also destroying spawning beds.

He states that in some places calcium, magnesium and potassium is “forming a concrete matrix which . . .can only broken with the force of hammer blows.”

One of the West Slope Cutthroat Creek that feed the Elk River

Another report, written by Dennis Lemly, a U.S. authority on selenium poisoning, states that pollution levels are so high that it has “the potential to completely eradicate the fish population” in the upper Fording River.

The Fording flows south to join the Elk River near Fernie, B.C., in an area that is world famous for its incredible cutthroat trout fishing.

While the upper Fording is closed to angling, because trout populations are so low, the lower river and the Elk continue to produce fish.

Guides on the Elk say it is still a remarkable fishery, but the lower Fording is a shadow of what it once was, and there are concerns that selenium poisoning could damage the entire watershed.

Teck Coal Ltd. says it has dedicated substantial resources to battling the problem.

“We absolutely recognize water quality in the Elk Valley is a serious challenge and it requires serious and significant action to address and that’s why we’ve been implement extensive measures to date,” said Doug Brown, manager of public affairs for Teck. “We absolutely accept the severity of this challenge. It’s something we’ve invested significant time, energy and funds towards addressing.”

Todd Gerhart, a federal Crown prosecutor, declined to comment on the expert witness reports, which were compiled as part of an investigation into the pollution problem and which were sent to Teck in a letter. It is unclear if Canada intends to prosecute Teck.

[Editor’s Note: Click here to see the interview with Paul Samycia, owner of the Elkriver Guiding Co. Ltd.]