Fear on the Fording River

When Paul Samycia first began fishing in British Columbia’s famous Elk Valley, he was drawn to the magical waters of the Fording River, where big westslope cutthroat rose through crystal waters to engulf dry flies.

The founder of the Elkriver Guiding Company in Fernie can still find great fishing for his clients in the Rocky Mountain streams that lace the area – but not in the upper Fording, which is closed to fishing.

Selenium, leaching out of massive coal slag piles, is poisoning the upper Fording, reaching such high levels that the fish could soon be totally wiped out, a story which is told elsewhere on this site.

And concerns are growing that Teck Coal Ltd. won’t do enough to stop the selenium pollution from spreading downstream into the Elk River.

We interview Paul recently after obtaining Environment Canada reports that detailed the extent of the pollution problem in the Fording, where an estimated 180,000 trout die annually because of selenium poisoning. The following question and answer exchange is edited.

Q: How’s the Fording River changed in your time?

A: They have closed the upper Fording to angling. It was the very first piece of water I ever fished in this valley in 1996. It was a phenomenal fishery at that time.

They are doing a westslope cutthroat study up there now. I’ve gone through lots of old reports about when they were doing water diversion projects to accommodate mining operations and they talk about having 10,000 fish recovered from the old river channel . . . the population now doesn’t reflect those numbers.

West Slope Cutthroat

West Slope Cutthroat with a deformed gill plate. Photo Courtesy of the Elkriver Guiding Company

Q: How’s the Elk?

A: We had a bad flood last year. A year after a flood event a freestone river generally does well and the Elk fished really well this year.

But we’re definitely seeing more evidence of fish [affected by selenium poisoning] with that shortened operculum.

Q: That’s the gill plate?

A: Yeah. We’re definitely seeing way more of that. And the Elk is getting harder to fish. When I first started you didn’t need to guide, you just needed to be a boat driver . . .we are still having some very good days, but we’re having tough days too. I can’t comment on what the reason for that is, but it doesn’t fish the way it used to. It’s tougher to fish. You have to be a better guide or a better angler.

But . . . in comparison to so many other streams it’s still excellent. It’s still a real gem.

I’d say 70% of our anglers are destination travelers from out of country or out of province. We’ve had a lot of clients even this year say ‘wow, this is such a great fishery we are coming back.’

On a global scale it’s still an excellent fishery.

The Fording River is one piece of the puzzle of the whole Elk River watershed. There’s a lot of water upstream of the Fording River that’s completely unaffected by mining at this point. There’s a lot of good spawning water up there.

What we’re really talking about is the loss of the Fording River.

The calcite formations [also caused by cola pollution] are the underdog that nobody’s really talking about, but that will have a long-term effect.

Q: Yeah I see in the reports it says you need a hammer to break this stuff up, so they’ve basically paved the river’s spawning beds.

A: Calcite is like cement. The aquatic invertebrates can’t survive in that.

Q: So when you read these expert reports what fears does it raise with you?

A: I do have a university background in science but I find them difficult to read. The message is there is great concern and what the Environment Canada reports are finding doesn’t really reflect what Teck is proposing to do.

Q: In addition to proposing water treatment efforts, Teck is also proposing that the acceptable levels of selenium in the river be increased.

A: It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I guess the whole thing is, are they doing enough fast enough? And who’s making the rules?

It comes down to [Teck’s] scientists versus Environment Canada scientists – and everybody is going to disagree on what’s acceptable.

But what it seems like is they are just trying to change the rules to make whatever they are doing acceptable. If the historic level is 10 [parts per billion of selenium] and they are putting out 20 they say, well, 20 should be the number anyway.

They are building the science around their needs is what I think is happening and that doesn’t seem right.

It comes to a point where you wonder who can do anything about it, or who will do anything about it? Will the provincial government hold them accountable or will they just go, ‘oh, do some more studies and we’ll just keep this a fluid plan because new technology is coming on, so you might as well keep mining because in four years you’ll come up with a great solution.’

I totally, totally understand the economic importance of these coal mines in this valley.

I know they have been here a long time and all that sort of stuff, but [with my business] I’m way more regulated now than I was when I started and I had no say in the matter. I’ve got a classified water system where I am paying royalties to the government. I’m limited on the number of days I can guide. When I first started it was a free-for-all, you buy a guide’s license and off you go.

If I’m being regulated strongly in my industry – why cannot they be regulated strongly in their industry?

Fording River

Teck’s Fording River operation is located 29 km northeast of the community of Elkford, in southeastern British Columbia.