MAC: Mines and Communities

New data show high mercury in Flin Flon-area lakes

Published by MAC on 2009-01-19
Source: Jen Skerritt, Winnipeg Free Press

New data that reveal once-pristine fishing holes near Flin Flon's toxic smelter are contaminated with high levels of mercury have outraged at least one critic who says health is sacrificed to keep the town's main employer in business.

Water samples taken from 11 lakes in and around Flin Flon show that all of them exceed environmental water criteria for mercury. Three lakes have high levels of copper that exceed environmental water standards, and another four lakes surpass drinking-water criteria for mercury.

Mercury levels found in northern pike exceeded levels deemed safe for human consumption in several lakes.

The water samples were taken as part of an ongoing human health risk assessment in the northern mining town that will determine whether pollutants from the Hudson Bay Mining & Smelting Co. copper smelter have an impact on residents' health. Lakes where residents indicated they regularly fish and swim were sampled.

Water biologist Eva Pip, who did similar studies of lakes in the Flin Flon area in the early 1990s, said the findings are cause for concern since heavy metals like mercury can't be removed from a lake. Pip said heavy metals don't break down in water, and it could take hundreds of years before mercury is stored in lake sediments.

Toxic metals from Flin Flon's smelter have seeped into the water, soil and vegetables, which Pip said is a sad indication the company, townspeople and the province have forfeited the health of citizens to keep the mining industry afloat.

The high levels of mercury in area lakes and fish are the latest data that have sparked concern Flin Flon's health may be at risk. A provincial study released last year revealed much of the town's soil is contaminated.

Flin Flon's copper smelter topped the list of Canada's worst metal polluters last year and reported significantly higher levels of lead, mercury, arsenic and sulphur dioxide than in 2006, which prompted the province to ask for a written report detailing what will be done to address the problem.

An in-depth human health risk assessment of area contaminants is expected to be released early this year.

Elliot Sigal, executive vice-president of Intrinsik Environmental Sciences, the company HudBay hired to do the health risk assessment, said mercury occurs naturally in the environment and there was no indication the levels found in the lakes are related to the smelter.

Sigal said Flin Flon residents indicated they fish and eat the fish from area lakes, but he does not expect this will have any negative impact on their health. He said the actual mercury levels found in all of the lakes will be posted online this month.

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