Fish death toll increases at Line Creek

Almost two-dozen more fish have been added to the total of deceased aquatic life found at Teck’s Line Creek Operations.

Between Thursday, October 16 and Friday, October 17 an initial 11 fish were found dead in the water treatment facility area at the Teck mine and preparation plant located near Sparwood. Since then, the total has risen to 34.

The facility has been shut down and is not expected to be fully operational again until early 2015, as Teck has taken to decommissioning, restarting and re-commissioning the facility as a precautionary measure.

“We take this incident very seriously and are actively working to determine the cause,” said Nic Milligan, manager of community and Aboriginal affairs in a press release.

Investigation into the cause of death of these fish is still ongoing, though according to Teck, the startup process of the water treatment facility may be related to the incident.

The startup process was recently installed to reduce selenium levels in the water.

Marcia Smith, senior vice president of sustainability and external affairs at Teck, has cited the water treatment facility — a $100 million infrastructure — as part of Teck’s “significant work” to reverse issues caused by selenium levels.

Public concern is rising regarding selenium levels as a result of the nearby Teck plants Fording River and Greenhills Operations, both located northeast of Elkford.

Selenium is an essential trace element necessary for cellular function in many organisms; however excessive amounts may result in toxic effects.

According to a review of Environment Canada’s Teck Coal Environmental Assessment, conducted between 2012-2014, concentrations of selenium found in westslope cutthroat trout fish eggs collected from the Upper Fording River were much higher than the toxic threshold for the species and displayed “classical symptoms of selenium poisoning marked by skeletal and craniofacial deformities.”

These deformities include concave craniums, bent spines, missing gill covers and deformed or missing fins, as seen in photographs of westslope cutthroat trout collected from the Upper Fording River included in the assessment.

The selenium threshold for these creatures, which notes the level at which sensitive species first begin to exhibit symptoms of selenium poisoning, is 10-15 micrograms per gram (dry weight).

Fish eggs collected from the Upper Fording River frequently had concentrations of 60 micrograms per gram (dry weight).

The review was posted on Teck’s website last month and the company has long acknowledged their part in the river pollution problem.

Over the next five years, Teck will be spending $600 million to improve water quality.

“We recognize that water quality in the Elk Valley watershed is a serious challenge that requires action,” said Milligan. “That’s why we have been working in cooperation with provincial and federal governments, First Nations, communities, governments in the U.S. and technical experts to develop an Elk Valley Water Quality Plan that will set out the approach to stabilizing and reversing selenium levels within the Elk Valley.”

Local residents had the opportunity to attend open houses earlier this year to provide their input in the development of the plan. Smith has also stated that Teck will continue to do research in universities across Canada and the U.S. in order to develop new ways to manage the selenium issue.

To read the full report and view photos captured of poisoned westslope cutthroat trout, visit http://www.teckelkvalley.com/res/vpl/documents/_ces_portal_meta/_portal_pages/documents/review_environment_canada.pdf

Appeared in print November 6, 2014 and online at The Free Press.

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