When Environment Canada investigators served a search warrant on Teck Coal Ltd. last spring, they zeroed in on waters in southeast British Columbia where researchers have catalogued some environmental horror stories.
Cutthroat trout eggs that ruptured when they were exposed to water or produced fish with "mass deformities" were found in a 2008 study by the Elk Valley Selenium Task Force, a multi-stakeholder group that has been trying to come to grips with pollution problems in the area.
Last year, the investigators went to the same waters where the task-force researchers had gathered fish eggs that were hatched in a Lower Mainland lab.
The 2008 tests showed female trout from the Fording River, near a tailing pond for one of Teck's coal mines, had high concentrations of a metal-like element known as selenium in their eggs.
Paul Samycia, a fly-fishing guide in Fernie, said on Monday the Elk River has a world famous sports fishery, with lots of large, apparently healthy fish. But Environment Canada investigators, who were in his store last year buying equipment, explained that selenium can cause fish populations to suddenly collapse.
"The adult fish are healthy, but the females concentrate it in their eggs and it can cause serious reproduction problems. That's why we are so concerned here," he said.
The 2008 study showed that many of the eggs taken from Fording River trout had become so fragile that they broke when taken from the fish and placed in water. Those that hatched produced young with high levels of deformities, including bent spines and bulging eyes.
"A strong relationship between survival and egg selenium concentration was apparent," stated the report, which concluded that as the selenium count climbed, so too did the failure rate of eggs.
Mark Johnson of Environment Canada confirmed that there is "an ongoing investigation" in the Elk Valley, but said he could not discuss details. Teck and the Department of Justice have refused comment on the investigation.
The pollution problem prompted Teck last month to propose to the provincial government a $600-million selenium-management action plan for the area.
Chris Stannell, a spokesman for Teck, said the company is doing what it can using a variety of methods, some of which are very new.
"Selenium management is still an emerging field of study, and Teck is at the forefront of developing successful management programs and technologies for the conditions in the Elk Valley," he said in an e-mail.
He said the company started pilot projects using biological treatment as early as 2008, and last year began to build an $80-million water-treatment plant.
Provincial NDP environment critic Rob Fleming said action should have been taken sooner in the region, where five coal mines are known to be leaching selenium and other pollutants into the Fording and Elk rivers.
"It seems to me the Ministry of Environment has been aware of the problem for a long time," said Mr. Fleming. "They don't know what to do about it … I don't blame the proponent [Teck] for the delays. They've come to the table with an action plan, but the government hasn't given them a clear target [for acceptable selenium levels]."
A B.C. Ministry of Environment briefing note dated June, 2012, released by Mr. Fleming, makes it clear that the government has been aware for some time of the dangers in the Elk Valley.
The note states that Teck was seeking to expand all its operations although selenium levels were climbing and were already five to 20 times higher than the B.C. water-quality guidelines.
The document also notes that the Elk River flows south, eventually reaching Lake Koocanusa, which stretches across the B.C.-Montana border, raising international concerns about water quality. In a statement last week, B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said the government plans to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"The government did nothing until this story broke in the media last week," said Mr. Fleming, referring to a University of Montana study that raised alarms about selenium pollution in the Elk River.