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Invertebrate metal accumulation and toxicity from sediments affected by the Mount Polley mine disaster

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On August 4, 2014, a tailings dam failed at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine near Likely, British Columbia, Canada, releasing approximately 25 M m\(^{3}\) of contaminated water and solid tailings material into Polley and Quesnel lakes. Water, sediment, freshwater scuds (Hyalella azteca), and mayfly larvae (Ephemeroptera) were collected during the summer of 2018 from Polley Lake, affected and unaffected sites in Quesnel Lake, and both mine-contaminated and clean far-field sites as references. Analytical results indicated that invertebrates from sites affected by the tailings breach had elevated metal concentrations relative to those from non-affected or reference sites. We conducted a controlled laboratory exposure to determine if laboratory-reared Hyalella azteca metal concentrations were related to field-collected water or sediments from the same sites as the field study. Half of the replicates prevented amphipods from directly contacting sediments (water-only exposure), while the other half allowed them direct access (sediment and water exposure). Whole-body Cu concentration was highest in Hyalella exposed to substrate from the most contaminated sites as well as in treatments where they were allowed direct access to sediments. Hyalella having direct access to metal-contaminated sediments showed reduced survival and growth relative to those in reference or control treatments. These results suggest that metals from the fine sediments associated with the Mount Polley mine disaster are bioavailable and potentially toxic to epibenthic invertebrates, even several years after the initial breach.

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Data availability

The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Change history

  • 01 June 2022

    Missing Supplementary materials included in the article.


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Dr. Ali Azizishirazi and Anne Willis conducted preliminary sampling that informed our field site selection. We thank Sarah Bogart for her role in study design and technical support and James Nilsson for field and laboratory support. Johane Joncas of the Lakehead University Centre for Analytical Services (LUCAS) provided analytical services. We are grateful to the Quesnel River Research Centre (QRRC) for providing accommodations as well as field and laboratory support. Special thanks are owed to Michael Allchin and Lazlo Enyedy of the QRRC for their invaluable knowledge of Quesnel Lake and piloting the research vessel. We are indebted to Drs. Ellen Petticrew and Philip Owens of the University of Northern British Columbia for leading the research collaboration of which this work is only a small part. We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for providing thoughtful comments that improved the manuscript. Thank you.


This work was primarily supported by Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Environmental Damages Fund (Project:1000371667-EDF-CA-2015/002). Partial funding was also provided by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery Grant to GGP.

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GGP participated in the original conception of the research question, design of experiment, analysis and interpretation of the data, and the preparation of the final manuscript. GGP was also the senior PI on the project, and supervised RDP’s and JLK’s graduate and postdoctoral research, respectively, as it related to this project. Funding for this work was awarded to GGP. RDP was the senior graduate student on this project. She participated in the original conception of the research question and the development of a field sampling strategy. She also collected and processed field samples and conducted the sediment-exclusion experiment. The work described here formed a major part of her graduate research. RDP prepared an early draft of this manuscript, and edited and approved the final version. LZ provided support on the statistical analysis and final interpretation of the data. She also generated site-specific BLM estimates, provided analytical training and support, and edited and approved the final manuscript. JLK provided field support in the collection and processing of water, sediment, and biota. She also participated in the design, execution, analysis, and interpretation of the sediment-exclusion study, and edited and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Gregory G. Pyle.

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Pyle, G.G., Plomp, R.D., Zink, L. et al. Invertebrate metal accumulation and toxicity from sediments affected by the Mount Polley mine disaster. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2022).

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  • Hyalella azteca
  • Mayfly larvae
  • Copper
  • Mine tailings
  • Aquatic invertebrates
  • Bioaccumulation
  • Bioavailability