Kootenay River Teck Elk Valley mines selenium-59

Food harvested near Teck coal mines higher in selenium than grocery store food, health risk study shows 

Selenium risks depend on amount of fish people eat from rivers downstream of Teck coal mines, according to a risk assessment quietly released by the B.C. government

Food harvested from British Columbia’s Elk Valley is higher in selenium than food from the grocery store or food harvested from regions not affected by Teck Resources’ coal mines, according to a human health risk assessment the mining company was required to undertake. 

The assessment found eating an average of one meal a day of fish harvested from waters polluted by the company’s coal mines — an amount the Ktunaxa Nation considers to be sukiⱡ ʔiknaⱡa or eating good — could pose potential health risks due to selenium contamination.

Eating the same fish from the rivers and creeks downstream of Teck’s five coal mines in southeast B.C. less often, say a few times a month, poses negligible selenium risks, the study mandated by the B.C. government also indicates.

Selenium occurs naturally in rocks in the Elk Valley. When massive piles of waste rock leftover from mining are exposed to air, rain and snowmelt, the mineral leaches from the rock, contaminating local waterways.

While some amount of selenium is essential to life, too much of it over an extended period of time can cause a condition called selenosis, leading to hair and nail loss, skin lesions, tooth decay and impacts to the nervous system, the human health risk study explained. Those symptoms typically clear up when the selenium exposure is addressed, the report said.

“It’s rare but it can happen,” Silvina Mema, the deputy chief medical health officer with Interior Health, told The Narwhal. Sometimes people develop selenosis because they’ve taken too much selenium as a dietary supplement, she explained, or by a combination of supplements and dietary sources.

“Brazil nuts, for example, have a high content of selenium. So if people were eating a bunch of Brazil nuts every day and on top of that they were supplementing with vitamins, they could be putting themselves at risk of selenosis,” she said.

aerial view of mine in B.C.'s Elk Valley.
Selenium leaches from piles of waste rock left over from the mining process at Teck Resources’ Elk Valley coal mines, contaminating nearby creeks and rivers. Photo: Callum Gunn

The human health risk assessment was prepared by the consulting firm Ramboll Americas Engineering Solutions in consultation with an expert working group, which included representatives from the B.C. Environment Ministry, Interior Health Authority, First Nations Health Authority and Ktunaxa Nation.

The 406-page study analyzed data on contaminants found in water and food harvested from the Elk Valley to assess the potential risks Teck’s coal mines pose to human health and determine if any changes are needed in water quality management. It focused on water pollution and did not consider risks unique to mine workers or from breathing in dust from the mines.

The report evaluated the potential for health risks under different exposure scenarios based on age and consumption rates. But it did not assess the incidence or prevalence of disease in the community. It also cautioned that human health risk assessment “is not an exact science and cannot be used to predict actual health risks in a community.” 

In a statement to The Narwhal, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy noted Teck Resources and the province are working with environmental professionals to implement a decade-old Elk Valley water quality plan. The plan, which the B.C. government ordered Teck to develop in 2013, aims to stabilize and reverse the trend of selenium pollution from the mines in the region’s water, among other goals. 

“The [human health risk assessment] shows we’re making progress on our goals and did not find any significant human health risks,” the spokesperson said, adding “we know more needs to be done.”

A map of the study area for the human health risk assessment follows the Elk River from just north of Teck Resources coal mines into the Koocanusa Reservoir and extends to the Canada-U.S.
The study area, which assesses risk to human health, is broken down into six management units over an area that follows the Elk River from just north of Teck Resources’ coal mines into the Koocanusa Reservoir to the Canada-U.S. border. Map: Human Health Risk Assessment Supporting the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan / Ramboll

While a graph posted to the Elk Valley water quality hub shows Teck’s water treatment facilities are successfully removing selenium from the water they treat, over the course of a year most selenium pollution continues to flow downstream untreated. Federal water monitoring data shows concentrations of the mineral in the Elk River have continued to increase in recent years despite the treatment facilities.

Ktunaxa Nation Council was not available to comment on the assessment before publication time. 

The nation has repeatedly raised concerns about the toll the mines have taken.

“We know we can’t drink out of our rivers because of the mines. We can’t do activities, like fishing in the Elk River, that we did as children, because we know we can’t eat it. We can’t do those activities with our children and grandchildren,” Yaq̓it ʔa·knuqⱡi ‘it Nasuʔkin (Chief) Heidi Gravelle said in a 2022 Ktunaxa Nation Council submission to the province regarding a proposal for a new coal mine Teck proposed in the Elk Valley. “Our way of life, our cultural practices, our survival, is impacted on a daily basis.” 

Selenium risks higher than other water pollutants from Teck Resources mines, assessment finds

According to a B.C. government summary, the health risk assessment found “occasional drinking of surface water with elevated amounts of selenium or other mine-related substances is unlikely to pose a risk to human health.”

But the report warned surface water affected by the mines should not be used as a daily drinking water source and in particular should not be used to reconstitute baby formula to avoid exposure to nitrates, which can cause methemoglobinemia, also known as blue baby syndrome. Nitrates left over from blasting at Teck’s mines are the biggest source of the contaminant, which also occurs naturally in the Elk Valley according to the province’s water quality hub.

Overall, the assessment did not find elevated risks from mine contaminants in its analysis of groundwater wells, according to the provincial summary. But the risk assessment noted data wasn’t available for all area wells and recommended well owners get their water tested.

Teck Resources has been monitoring private and municipal drinking water wells since 2014. Selenium levels exceeding provincial drinking water guidelines have been detected in multiple wells.

Eating fish from mine-affected waters is one of the primary ways people may be exposed to selenium, according to the report. But risks vary based on a person’s body size and the amount of fish they eat.

The selenium risks were found to be negligible for average consumers, or people who eat about 15 meals a year of fish harvested from the study area, as well as for “upper percentile consumers” — people who eat between 60 and 64 fish meals a year, according to the assessment.

For “people fishing occasionally and consuming fish from the valley occasionally, the risk is not higher than fishing anywhere else,” Mema, of Interior Health, said. “I wouldn’t be too concerned about that.”

But people who eat fish from mine-affected waters at Ktunaxa Nation’s preferred rate, the level required for sukiⱡ ʔiknaⱡa, could face potential health risks due to selenium exposure, the study found.

Mema said the health risk assessment doesn’t mean that everyone who eats fish every day from rivers downstream of the mines are at increased risk from selenium because it depends where they fish and what type of fish they eat.

“Exposure from other types of foods like game, berries, rose hips, those would not result in elevated risk to health,” she said.

a photo of a fly fisher casting on the Elk River near Fernie, B.C.
Tourists travel from all over to fly fish on the Elk River. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Fish from Koocanusa Reservoir, a large lake created by Montana’s Libby Dam that the Elk River flows into, pose negligible selenium risks even at Ktunaxa Nation’s preferred rate of fish consumption, according to the risk assessment. However, mercury may be a concern for people who eat 60 fish meals or more annually from the reservoir, according to the report. The risk assessment said mercury levels in the reservoir are not related to the coal mines and are comparable to other lakes in the region.

There is some uncertainty in the health risk assessment findings because fish samples were not necessarily collected from areas where people prefer to fish or of the species people prefer to eat. For instance, the study included longnose suckers from Goddard Marsh, directly downstream of the mines: while the report found the suckers had elevated selenium concentrations and should not be consumed, it also noted people don’t typically fish in Goddard Marsh.

The B.C. government directed Teck Resources to work with the human health working group to develop a program to address gaps identified in the risk assessment, including assessing the health risks of eating popular fish from common harvesting areas.

‘We don’t inherit the Earth, we’re supposed to be taking care of it’

Kevin Podrasky, the president of the East Kootenay Wildlife Association, who previously worked for Teck, said he wasn’t surprised by the risk assesment’s findings.

“Even the aquatic side, it wasn’t a deep surprise to me that there are potential risks,” Podrasky, whose association of hunters, fishers and conservationists is affiliated with the B.C. Wildlife Federation, said in an interview. Podrasky said the number of fish he eats from waterways downstream of Teck’s mines is low enough that he isn’t personally concerned about health risks.

The number of people fishing in the Elk Valley has grown significantly, he noted. “You can’t drive past Fernie without seeing a guide boat,” Podrasky said. “There’s a big industry now.”

Many people are out there for recreation and not necessarily to harvest food, he said, noting, “it’s not a catch-and-keep fishery for a lot of the river.”  

Podrasky said he would like water quality issues stemming from the mines to be addressed.

While the B.C. government recommends the 30-day average concentration for selenium in water should be two parts per billion to protect aquatic life, Teck is not required to meet this objective downstream of its mines. Instead, the province has set substantially higher limits for Teck’s mines. 

Teck mostly met its selenium limits at monitoring sites downstream of mines over the past several years, according to data from January 2022 to March 2024 posted to the Elk Valley water quality hub. At times, however, the company exceeded selenium limits during the late winter or early spring.  

For instance, in February and March this year, selenium concentrations in the Fording River, downstream of Teck’s Greenhills mine operation, exceeded the 57 parts per billion limit the B.C. government set for that stretch of river. Farther south, selenium concentrations in the Elk River, upstream of Grave Creek, also exceeded the 19 parts per billion limit established for the monitoring location.

According to the Elk Valley water quality hub, the poorest water quality is usually seen between January and March when water levels in rivers and creeks tend to be at their lowest and mine contaminants aren’t as diluted as they are later in the spring and summer when the rivers swell with melted snow from the mountains.  

The risk selenium poses to fish is one of the primary concerns about the contamination stemming from the mines. At high enough concentrations, the element can lead to deformities and reproductive failure. 

As Teck Resources plans to sell coal mines to Glencore, long-term water treatment questioned

In its summary of the human health risk assessment, the B.C. government says water treatment and other measures to improve water quality are expected to reduce risks to human health and aquatic life.

Teck has invested $1.4 billion in treatment and other water quality measures, company spokesperson Chris Stannell said in an emailed statement to The Narwhal. The company plans to invest an additional $150 million to $250 million by the end of this year.

Teck’s four water treatment facilities can treat a total of 77.5 million litres of water daily and the company plans to construct six more treatment facilities by 2027.

“We have made significant progress implementing the Elk Valley water quality plan, which is successfully improving water quality in the region,” Stannell said.

A graph showing data on the province’s Elk Valley water quality hub shows Teck Resources water treatment facilities are removing a portion of selenium pollution affecting the watershed.
Data on the province’s Elk Valley water quality hub shows Teck’s water treatment facilities are removing a portion of selenium pollution affecting the watershed. Graph: Government of British Columbia

Despite these investments, Podrasky wonders who will run the water treatment facilities in the decades to come — especially if the planned sale of Teck coal mines to Swiss mining giant Glencore goes ahead.

In November, Glencore announced it had reached a deal to buy a majority share in Teck’s Elk Valley coal mines. While the deal needs federal approval, Glencore has said it intends to spin off its thermal coal mines in Australia, South Africa and Colombia into a separate company, and will include the Elk Valley steel-making coal mines if that deal goes through.

On July 4, the federal government  announced it had approved Glencore’s takeover of the Elk Valley coal mines, subject to a number of conditions. Those include requiring Glencore to be financially accountable until 2050 for environmental obligations under Canadian law — beyond reclamation obligations covered by an existing mining bond required by the B.C. government.

The deal is expected to close on July 11, according to a Teck press release.

Podrasky is clear he’s not opposed to resource development in the Elk Valley. “I made a very good living out of the coal mines and so do my family,” he said.

But he does worry about what the future holds. “You have to have very deep pockets to be managing these issues,” he said. He pointed to contaminated mine sites in northern B.C. “We can’t afford to let that happen down here.” 

And it’s not just the mines, but the combined impacts from extensive logging, increasing recreation — and what he calls mismanagement by the provincial government.

“I’m not afraid to say that I’ve shed many tears watching what it’s become now,” he said. “We don’t inherit the Earth, we’re supposed to be taking care of it for the next generation.”

Dust from Teck’s Elk Valley coal mines remains a ‘huge concern’

A key concern the human health risk assessment did not directly address is the risk of breathing in dust from the coal mines.

“A lot of us are deeply concerned about the particulate matter in the air,” Podrasky, from the East Kootenay Wildlife Association, said.

A recent study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found “vast quantities” of toxic contaminants called polycyclic aromatic compounds are blown downwind of the mines.

According to the study, Teck Resources is not required to report emissions of polycyclic aromatic compounds, but does report overall particulate matter emissions.

The study says annual particulate matter emissions increased more than ten fold between 2006 and 2021, rising from 11,618 to 164,339 tons.

In January, the B.C. government also directed Teck to undertake a scoping study to better understand exposure and health risks from mine dust in consultation with the human health working group.

“The recent research has clearly shown that airborne coal dust is an issue, not only near the mines, but downwind of it as well,” Simon Wiebe, mining policy and impacts researcher with the conservation group Wildsight, said. “It’s definitely a huge concern for locals,” he said. “But it’s not something to be ignored, even if you live in the neighbouring province.”

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The final human health risk assessment report was submitted to the provincial government in October 2023, accepted in January 2024 and quietly posted to B.C.’s Elk Valley water quality hub website in February.

At the time, the provincial government made several recommendations, including to “communicate results of the [risk assessment] and next steps publicly using accessible language.”

Although a plain language summary of the risk assessment was posted on the water quality hub, it doesn’t appear the provincial government, Interior Health or Teck issued a press release to notify the media or the public.

“It’s publicly available, but they really aren’t advertising it,” Wiebe told The Narwhal.

Mema acknowledged the need for a risk assessment communication plan. “We are working towards that,” she said.

The Narwhal asked for an interview with Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman but was turned down.

When asked about the lack of public communication around the health risk assessment, a spokesperson for the Environment Ministry said “public communication about human health risks are led by experts at the health authority.” The spokesperson added the ministry would continue to work with the Ktunaxa Nation Council to support communication with Ktunaxa citizens.

Updated on July 4, 2024, at 5:29 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with news on the federal government expected to approve the sale of Teck’s coal operations to Glencore.

Updated on July 5, 2024, at 8:27 a.m. PT: This story has been updated to note the federal government has approved Glencore’s takeover of Teck’s Elk Valley coal mines. 

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Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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