Scientists butt heads over extent of Long Lake arsenic levels

The lake sits right beside Quinsam Coal Mine west of Campbell River

Scientists agree that Long Lake, located beside the Quinsam Coal Mine, has unusually high levels of arsenic.

But getting the scientists to agree on how and why the levels are so high, and the potential damage it causes organisms, is a question that may never be adequately answered.

“As far as I’m concerned, the results are as good as you’re going to get,” Dr. Bill Cullen told members of the mine’s environmental technical review committee.

Cullen, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of British Columbia, is also an active member of the Canadian Water Network. During Monday’s meeting at the Enterprise Centre, he presented his study findings that examined levels of arsenic, magnesium, iron and other elements found in Long Lake.

As well, he studied the survival rate of freshwater mussels and how the lake water affects another species in a laboratory: mud shrimp.

While mud shrimp are not found in Long Lake, they are a good indicator species to determine the bioavailabilty of arsenic. What Cullen found was that the lake’s water was “acutely toxic” to the shrimp.

And that led to the first contentious bout between Cullen and Barbara Wernick, a senior environmental scientist with Golder Associates which also studied arsenic levels in the lake and how it affects certain species that live in and around the lake.

Cullen was the first to lash out, claiming the Golder report prepared for the mine is “pandering” and one of the worst he’s ever seen.

“I don’t think the mine should have accepted it,” stated Cullen, who added that he believes the report’s conclusions are erroneous and misleading.

Of course that prompted a response from Wernick who wondered aloud why Cullen chose to study something outside of the lake, that doesn’t actually live in the lake.

“I think the way you are characterizing the report is misleading,” she fired back.

She pointed out the Golder report looked at midge larvae that does live in the lake and found no toxicity among the species.

As for freshwater mussels, they are found in the streams leading in and out of Long Lake, as well as in the surrounding lakes, but they haven’t been found in Long Lake, despite the best efforts of volunteers from the Campbell River Environmental Council to find them.

So, what Cullen did was take mussels from surrounding lakes, place them in cages in about eight feet of water, and waited. Unfortunately, some of the cages “went missing.”

So other cages of mussels were hidden in strategic locations around the lake. When Cullen returned, he found that a percentage of the mussels had died, while no mussels died that had been placed in nearby Lower Quinsam Lake.

Again, Wernick questioned the methodology and said the deaths could be due to arsenic or something else, which prompted Cullen to quip, “Whose side are you on?”

Wernick responded that while she is working for the Quinsam mine, she is a scientist who is always looking for answers.

“We’re trying to make sense of a bunch of conflicting data,” she said.

So, the question remains: Is the high level of arsenic due, wholly or in part, to the coal mining operations or is naturally occurring?

Bruce Mattson is a consultant for Lorax Environmental which conducted a groundwater study for the mine.

He believes that groundwater, moving through the underground layer of Dunsmuir sandstone – which does contain high levels of arsenic – is responsible for the “arsenic loading” and the high levels in the lake are not “mine influenced.”

However, he also acknowledged the “infamous Long Lake seep” where groundwater may be moving through a mined coal seam.

This could also be carrying a higher concentration of arsenic into the lake.

So, while many questions remain, Cullen pointed out there’s no more public money to conduct further studies on behalf of the Canadian Water Network.

Meanwhile, Quinsam is preparing to open a new mine, known as “7 South,” which may have to go through a federal environmental assessment, pending a review from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Last month the province granted Quinsam a permit amendment, allowing the company to begin work on expanding its operation.