From Canadian Coal Mines, Toxic Pollution That Knows No Borders

Massive open-pit coal mines in British Columbia are leaching high concentrations of selenium into the Elk River watershed, damaging fish populations and contaminating drinking water. Now this pollution is flowing across the Canadian-U.S. border, threatening the quality of U.S. waters.

Teck Resources' Greenhills mine in British Columbia's Elk Valley.
Teck Resources’ Greenhills mine in British Columbia’s Elk Valley. CREDIT: GARTH LENZ

Samycia snapped a photo of the fish. For the last four years, Samycia, the owner of Elk River Guiding Company, a fly-fishing shop and outfitter based in Fernie, British Columbia, has been collecting photos of misshapen catches. Some have shortened gill plates. Others have snubbed noses, making them look like they swam into a rock. He and fellow guides have amassed nearly 40 photos.

Samycia started noticing the deformities about 10 years ago, but the sightings are becoming increasingly common. Scientists have found substantial evidence that the cause is selenium, a trace element, leaching from coal mines in the Elk River watershed. A 2013 study found heightened selenium concentrations downstream of mines in the Elk Valley, and a 2014 report linked high selenium to a slew of damaging ecological consequences in the river, including malformations and reproductive failure in fish.

Environmental groups now are raising concerns about harm to the ecosystem, ranging from the Elk River’s tributaries to waters downstream that cross into the United States. They also point to risks for human health in communities nearest to the mines, where selenium is contaminating drinking water. Meanwhile, tensions on both sides of the border are escalating: U.S. members of a binational water regulator sounded alarm bells last year, charging that Canadian members were suppressing scientific evidence related to the selenium pollution and its risks to the ecosystem and human health. The situation in the Elk has been called “a monumental selenium spill in slow motion.”

“We have one of the biggest selenium contamination issues in the world taking place in the Elk River,” says one biologist.