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Trout populations facing worrisome decline

Researchers believe population drops are due to contaminated water from Teck’s mines
Trout populations in the Fording River have seen a shocking decline in numbers recently. File Photo

Westslope cutthroat trout (WCT) populations in the Fording River, just downstream of the largest coal mines in the Elk Valley, have seen a major recent collapse. Wildsight, an organization dedicated to protecting biodiversity and encouraging sustainability, shared reports with The Free Press that delineated the details of the collapse. The reports are based off findings from the Upper Fording River Westslope Cutthroat Trout Population Monitoring Project, conducted in 2019.

When researchers sampled the Fording River for WCT populations back in 2017, they found a total of 3,672 fish in their sampled river segments. When they conducted the same tests in October of 2019, that number diminished to a startling 66. More specifically, adult WCT populations declined from 76.3 fish per kilometre, to a worrisome 8.6 trout per kilometre. Similarly facing diminution, populations of juvenile fish dropped from 13.38 fish per square hundred metres, to just 3.9.

The sudden disappearance of fish is thought to be linked to water contamination levels from Teck’s mines. According to Lars Sander-Green, science and communications analyst for Wildsight, that section of the Fording River contains alarmingly high levels of water pollution. Specifically, selenium, nitrate, calcite, and other toxic substances are found to be affecting the fish habitats.

If these substances exceed safe concentrations, they have the potential to damage aquatic life. According to a report sourced from Teck’s website, the B.C. Water Guidelines for Aquatic Health state the guideline concentration for selenium should be at 2 µg/l. Studies conducted in 2013 delineating the average concentration of substances in local waterways found selenium concentrations in the Upper Fording river to be at 47 µg/l. In the same report, nitrate levels in the Fording River also exceeded the B.C. Water Quality Guideline, which sets guideline concentrations at 3 mg/l, but found concentrations of 11 mg/l.

Sander-Green worries that if current trends continue, there may be no trout left in the Fording River in the future. He also expressed concern over the way declining trout populations could affect the livelihood of other fish species in the Elk Valley and Koocanusa.

“This water pollution is going to keep flowing from the waste rock dumps at the coal mines for a thousand years. No matter what kind of water treatment Teck puts in place, it won’t be running for that long. The long term pollution level in the Fording and the Elk Rivers is just going to keep increasing and that’s very bad news for our trout,” said Sander-Green.

In response to the findings, the coal mine states they are unaware of what factors could have led to the 70 per cent drop in juvenile fish populations, and over 90 per cent drop in adult fish populations in the last two years.

“The reasons for the lower fish counts are unknown at this time. Teck has established a team of external experts to evaluate possible causes such as water quality issues, flow conditions and habitat availability, predation and other factors,” said Nic Milligan, manager of social responsibility for Teck. “We take this issue very seriously and have been working with the Ktunaxa Nation, government regulators and experts to gather more data. We are also taking precautionary measures at our operations including limiting water use during low flow periods.”

Teck has already implemented a water treatment facility at their Line Creek Operations, and is currently building a larger tank based plant at their Fording River Operations to assist with their efforts towards sustainable mining. The coal company has also put forth a new form of water treatment using Saturated Rock Fills, that has the potential to remove large quantities of selenium and nitrate from local waterways. In addition, the company has invested $30 million this year in research and development projects to further their knowledge of water quality and treatment options. They are currently working with government regulators, the Ktunaxa Nation Council, the Elk Valley Fish and Fish Habitat Committee, and the Environmental Monitoring Committee to collect further data.

Even so, according to Sander-Green, Environment Canada’s selenium expert warned of this collapse back in 2014. As a result, westslope cutthroat trout were listed in the Species at Risk Act because of selenium pollution from the mines. However since then, both the provincial and federal governments have allowed increases in pollution in the Fording River.

“Teck claims to be baffled by the fish population collapse, but they’ve been putting way more selenium and nitrate into this river than is considered safe for years at the same time as they are destroying trout habitat. Teck’s suggestion that this happened because of climate change or natural causes is really grasping at straws. Why has the trout population collapsed downstream of Teck’s coal mines, but nowhere else? It’s time for Teck to be honest with the people of the Elk Valley,” said Sander-Green.

While both Teck and the government are studying the issue, Sander-Green urges that what is needed more than studies, is taking action on a long term plan. He proposes a moratorium on new coal mines and new mine expansion, as well as developing practices that do not amplify ecological problems until the issues pertaining to the trout populations are addressed and reverted. Sander-Green also cautioned that if issues are not addressed soon, taxpayers may end up feeling the brunt of a required clean up.

Unfortunately, according to Sander-Green, Environment Canada has currently gone silent while they are allegedly continuing work on their Fisheries Act investigation. The investigation commenced in 2012, however has not seen any enforced action yet. Sander-Green also bemoaned the fact that Environment Canada and Climate Change Canada have seen delays in establishing federal pollution limits for coal mines due to pressure from the industry. Even so, according to Sander-Green, no long term plan has been set in place to clean up the Fording River and surrounding waterways.

“B.C. is still letting Teck call the shots in the Elk Valley. By using a disingenuously named Implementation Plan Amendment, which B.C. essentially approved late last year, Teck has sidestepped the pollution limits that were supposed to protect fish, and they plan to keep polluting above limits for decades. B.C. ordered Teck to reverse the water quality trend in 2013, but now Teck is planning even higher pollution levels than we’ve seen in the last six years and B.C. is just going to go along with it,” said Sander-Green.

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