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Selenium in Schist Lake fish may be from Flin Flon tailings: Hudbay

Effluent from Hudbay’s Flin Flon tailings facility may be to blame for high levels of selenium found in fish in Schist Lake, leading to a health advisory limiting how much fish from the lake can be eaten.
Hudbay manager of environmental control Landice Yestrau speaks at an information session on high levels of selenium found in Schist Lake fish at Flin Flon Community Hall May 9. One of the causes for the high levels, according to Hudbay, may be effluent pumped into the lake from the company's Flin Flon tailings facility.

Effluent from Hudbay’s Flin Flon tailings facility may be to blame for high levels of selenium found in fish in Schist Lake, leading to a health advisory limiting how much fish from the lake can be eaten.

Hudbay hosted a public information session May 9 about the health advisory and what role it may have played in how high levels of selenium got into Schist Lake’s local fish population. According to company representatives at the meeting, it is currently believed that the selenium that ended up in the fish may have come from Hudbay’s Flin Flon-area tailings facility.

“Ongoing monitoring suggests that a source of selenium in Schist Lake is treated, compliant effluent (i.e. wastewater) from the Flin Flon tailings impoundment system,” reads a presentation shown at the session.

“By identifying and isolating potential sources, additional monitoring and mitigation can be implemented.”

The estimated flow path of the material from the Flin Flon tailings facility would have taken the selenium through Ross Creek and into Ross Lake, then on to Schist Lake, further downstream. Officials from Manitoba Environment and Climate Change confirmed to The Reminder last month that elevated levels of selenium have been reported in fish caught in Lake Athapapuskow, further downstream than Schist Lake, though the levels are not high enough to demand a limit on meals involving fish from Lake Athapapuskow. That path would take the selenium right past the subdivision of Channing - later during a public question and answer period, company representatives said there was no evidence to support any unsafe exposure to the element had taken place in Channing.

In April, Manitoba Environment and Climate Change issued an advisory about selenium in Schist Lake fish, requestling that people limit their fish intake from the lake to no more than four meals per month. The fish are still safe to eat, but moderation is recommended, no matter what type of fish is eaten or where in the lake it was caught.

A slide in the Hudbay presentation listed effects of selenium toxicity included hair loss, brittle or discoloured nails, muscle pain and tenderness, irritability, fatigue, skin lesions or rashes and a metallic taste or bad breath.

While monitoring of the effluent being pumped from the tailings facility into the creek and further down the system has shown lower levels of selenium within the waste, levels of selenium in northern pike and white sucker in the lake have jumped from 2018, with an increase in levels found in northern pike and levels found in white sucker more than doubling.

“We're going to be continuing to find more data and answers to those questions and update you along the way. We’ll continue to update and engage with community members regarding these issues - this is not the first and last time we'll be talking about this. When we do get more answers and more information, we'll be sharing that with you for as long as we need to do that,” said Landice Yestrau, Hudbay’s manager of environmental control.

Studies and research into selenium in northern lakes have been ongoing since at least the 1990s, with Hudbay conducting testing as per provincial environmental regulations. Hudbay officials said they would continue monitoring the lake to determine the company’s next steps, including analyzing material at the tailings facility itself to see if there’s any specific reason behind the increased levels. More fish samples will be collected not only from Schist Lake, but from Lake Athapapuskow and Namew Lake, both located downstream from Schist Lake.

“One of the themes here throughout the night is that this is definitely an emerging issue within Manitoba and certainly here within Flin Flon. There's plenty more study to be done, not only to determine what the ultimate source or sources is, but what other conditions within the environment might also be contributing to some of the elevated concentrations that we're seeing in fish in Schist Lake,” said Cliff Samoiloff, a senior scientist and project manager with consulting firm Aecom, hired by Hudbay to oversee some of the company’s environmental matters.

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