5.0 Issue: EVCC Selenium
Context: In the 1990s increases in selenium (Se) concentrations in water and biota in portions of the Elk River drainage system in British Columbia were observed. These increases, which in some cases exceeded water quality guidelines, were attributed to coal mines operated by the Elk Valley Coal Corporation.
What is selenium?
Selenium is a naturally-occurring element in sulfide ores. Selenium is toxic in large amounts, but trace amounts are necessary for cellular function in most, if not all, animals and plants.
What actions have been taken to address Elk River excesses?
Research indicates that site-specific, tissue-based tests on aquatic life are better indicators of selenium effects than broad water quality guidelines.
Accordingly, we addressed concerns about potential impacts by forming a joint industry-government Elk Valley Selenium Task Force (EVSTF) in 1998 to conduct a trend analysis of water quality, a lotic study on fish (cutthroat trout) and water birds (sandpiper and dippers), a lentic study with blackbirds, frogs, cutthroat trout and dwarf longnose suckers, as well as on-going water monitoring. Detailed progress to date on these and other investigations is contained in the Selenium Status Reports of 2003, 2004 and 2005/2006, the first of which was prepared for Elk Valley Coal Corporation the latter for EVSTF.
To summarize, though regional monitoring of water and biota indicates continued, long-term increases in selenium in water downstream of the mines, human health assessment showed no effects except possibly a positive one for nutrition. Concentrations in fish and bird eggs, although elevated, have not increased over the last few years and previous studies indicate that the viability and productivity of fish and water bird populations do not appear to be adversely impacted, nor those of wildlife.
What are current conditions of Elk River?
Current efforts remain focused on monitoring, management, studies to establish a definitive threshold for Westslope cutthroat trout and efforts to predict future Se releases under different mining scenarios and management approaches. In addition, we continue to study factors relating to cycle and conversion of Se once it enters the aquatic environment and integrate findings into operational practices.