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Investigating the cause(s) of benthic macroinvertebrate community impairment downstream of two Saskatchewan uranium operations



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Past monitoring has noted benthic macroinvertebrate community impairment downstream of both the Key Lake and Rabbit Lake uranium operations in northern Saskatchewan, Canada. The objective of this research was to try to identify the cause(s) of these impacts using a weight-of-evidence approach. Given that sediments generally accumulate contaminants that are related to metal mining activities (such as metals and radionuclides), the initial hypothesis for this research was that contaminated sediments were the primary cause of benthic community impairment at both operations.In 2003 and 2004 a Sediment Quality Triad (SQT) approach confirmed the presence of an effect on benthic community structure, in addition to significant differences in surface-water, pore-water and whole-sediment chemistry at the immediate down-stream exposure sites at both uranium operations. However, no significant adverse effects were noted in 10-d whole-sediment bioassays with Hyalella azteca, although this lack of response could be partially due to sediment pore-water dilution resulting from the automated clean overlying water renewal process employed. Potential causes of benthic community impairment identified through the 2003 and 2004 SQTs for Key Lake include physical sediment composition, surface water pH and total ammonia, in addition to pore-water total ammonia and arsenic. Potential stressors identified at Rabbit Lake included high surface water manganese and uranium concentrations, and increases in pore-water total ammonia, manganese, iron, arsenic, and uranium levels.In the summer of 2004, 4-d in-situ bioassays using H. azteca were conducted along with the SQTs to investigate the role both contaminated surface water and sediment played in benthic community impairment in-situ. Results from the Key Lake in-situ bioassay demonstrated that surface-water was the primary cause of acute toxicity to H. azteca. Results from the Rabbit Lake in-situ study also demonstrated that surface water as the primary cause of acute toxicity to H. azteca, although the relationship was not as strong. The cause of in-situ toxicity at Key Lake could not be correlated with any of the variables measured within the in-situ study, including trace metals, total ammonia, and pH. Of the measured constituents at Rabbit Lake, only concentrations of uranium in both surface water and pore-water were suspected of causing the observed in-situ mortality. Two data sets from two methods of surface water and pore-water collection supported these conclusions.Due to time constraints and stronger cause-effect relationships, efforts were focused on the in-situ toxicity observed at Key Lake. Surface water collected in 2004 at the time of the related in-situ study was also found to be acutely toxic to H. azteca in separate laboratory surface water bioassays, thus verifying that contaminated surface water, not sediment, was the primary cause of the observed in-situ H. azteca mortality. Further information revealed that organic mill-process chemicals, which have been previously linked with sporadic effluent toxicity, were released at the Key Lake operation during the time of the in-situ experiment and associated surface water collection. Additional surface water samples collected in June and August, 2005, were not acutely toxic to H. azteca. Furthermore, a second bioassay with archived surface waters from the initial 2004 collection demonstrated that the water was no longer acutely toxic (i.e., acute toxicity disappeared after one-year storage). Chemistry comparisons of the toxic and non-toxic surface water samples, verified that trace metals, ammonia, pH, and major ions, including sulphate, were not the cause of toxicity, leaving only organic mill-process chemicals as a possible cause. Subsequent 4-d laboratory toxicity tests demonstrated that these process chemicals (kerosene, amine, and isodecanol) are toxic to H. azteca at the levels released in 2004, and are therefore believed to be the cause of the H. azteca mortality seen in the earlier in-situ experiment.In short, this weight-of-evidence research provided new information on the possible causes of benthic macroinvertebrate community impairment downstream of both the Key Lake and Rabbit Lake uranium operations.



uranium milling, uranium mining, Hyalella azteca, benthic invertebrates



Master of Science (M.Sc.)






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