Few people know more about selenium poisoning than Dennis Lemly and that's why Environment Canada turned to him to assess federal research in British Columbia's Elk Valley watershed.
The research associate professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina has written an expert report that reviews the data being collected by the federal government in an investigation into pollution from coal mines.
His report, sent by Environment Canada recently to Teck Coal Ltd. and the provincial government, warns bluntly that selenium pollution has reached levels that threaten a total population collapse of westslope cutthroat trout. Those fish are high up the aquatic food chain, so if they are on the edge, other aquatic life are too.
Dr. Lemly declined to be interviewed because the situation in the Elk Valley is under active investigation, but he has expressed his views on selenium pollution in the past.
"How bad does it have to get? Unfortunately, you have to have the ecological equivalent of a nuclear meltdown for people to stop and say, 'Wait a minute. We are doing more harm than good,'" he said, commenting on a situation in Idaho, where a chronic selenium problem only caused alarm after trout were found with two heads.
Dr. Lemly has also commented on why scientific research about selenium pollution often gets ignored: "It's not a question of knowing better, it's a question of not wanting to know. If policy makers would rather let egos, power and money stand in the way of protecting the environment, then they should be held responsible."
But just how bad is the situation in the Elk Valley?
In his report for Environment Canada, Dr. Lemly says the problem has existed since the 1800s, when coal mining began, but it has become worse over the past 40 years because of a shift to large-scale, open-pit operations.
"As these surface mines have expanded, so has the volume of their selenium-laden water discharges to nearby stream and rivers," he states. "The increase in water pollution … all point to the same conclusion, that is, the Elk River watershed is now at a tipping point. Selenium toxicity is evident in fish, especially in the Upper Fording River, and further increases in waterborne and fish-tissue concentrations can lead to only one outcome … total population collapse of sensitive species such as westslope cutthroat trout."
You'd think this unfolding environmental disaster would generate a lot of headlines in B.C., but so far it has largely been ignored. People seem far more worried about the potential damage that might be caused by a possible oil spill from a proposed pipeline than they are about what's actually happening right now in the Elk Valley.
Selenium is leaching steadily into the rivers and streams, collecting in bottom sediments, being concentrated by aquatic insects and passed up the food chain to fish and presumably other species.
Of course, selenium – unlike gooey oil – can't be seen, tasted or smelled. It's in the water everywhere in the Elk Valley, but it is also invisible – at least it was until scientists hatched fish eggs in labs. Then it was possible at least to see the damage done, which included spinal deformities, distorted skulls and jaws, missing fins and partially formed gill plates. Environment Canada estimates 180,749 fish are lost each year to selenium poisoning in the upper Fording River.
Dr. Lemly's report doesn't get into the potential wider impact of selenium in the Elk Valley, but it is known to affect water birds. In the mid-80s, thousands of dead and deformed birds were found in California's Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, where selenium from agricultural runoff had accumulated. To fix the problem, 100,000 acres of once irrigated farmland in the San Joaquin Valley had to be retired.
No one is saying shut down the coal mines in the Elk Valley. But proposals to expand mining there seem unwise in the face of Dr. Lemly's disturbing report.