Alberta to study selenium in wake of coal controversy

The provincial government plans to review how it manages water quality, but critics call it an effort to distract the public. | File photo

The provincial government plans to review how it manages water quality, but critics call it an effort to distract the public

A former Alberta government scientist says plans by Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon to review the management of selenium in water are likely a tactic to distract the public.

Provincial officials are finding themselves “in this public uproar caused by some bad decisions to change the potential for coal mining in Alberta, and they’re looking for something to hide behind,” said Bill Donahue, an independent consultant who is a former executive director and chief environmental monitoring officer at Environment and Parks.

However, Nixon said in statement that the selenium management review is among several measures that “will help ensure appropriate water quality objectives, monitoring and management responses are in place to maintain the health of our rivers.”

It will be undertaken by Environment and Parks in collaboration with the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), he said at a news conference June 22. “The review will look at Alberta’s current approach and regulatory requirements for the application, construction, operation, decommissioning and reclamation of mines, with the aim to identify any findings that could pose a threat to water quality.”

It will also look at management approaches in comparable jurisdictions for possible uses in Alberta.

“Once the review is complete, we will work with impacted groups on the necessary actions required to protect the quality of our water,” he said.

Public consultations will also start in July and run until Sept. 17 for two new surface water quality management frameworks. One will cover the North Saskatchewan and Battle rivers, while the other will target the upper Athabasca River, said Nixon.

“I want to highlight that under these frameworks, once water quality objectives are set, they must be achieved. This means if any water quality trigger or limit is exceeded, the framework will require a management response from government.”

However, Donahue said the province’s regulatory system is designed to ensure energy projects such as coal mines can proceed, despite the fact provincial monitoring has shown high levels of selenium due to coal development are persisting long after mines are closed.

The provincial government last year rescinded a coal policy dating back to 1976, opening up much of the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains to potential open-pit coal mining. The policy was reinstated Feb. 8 following widespread opposition, and an independent committee is now gathering public input for a new coal policy.

The selenium management review will complement the work of the committee, said Nixon. It provides “an avenue for Albertans who are participating in the coal consultation process to actually engage with the department that’s involved in and in charge of water.”

Nixon’s announcement June 22 included the release of a report detailing how water quality in the McLeod River is being affected by coal mining. The river, which originates in the Eastern Slopes, joins the Athabasca River near Whitecourt northwest of Edmonton.

“Changes in the McLeod River water quality at sites downstream of active mining included increasing trends in 11 metals, including selenium,” said the report. Although selenium and some other metals had decreased downstream of closed mines and reclamation activity, concentrations from 2005 to 2016 were still above the recommended guidelines for the protection of aquatic life, it said.

Selenium is a natural part of rocks, landscape ecologist Brad Stelfox of the Alces Group said during an earlier interview. If concentrations in water become too high, “it can cause some fairly major problems, whether it be irrigation or water consumption for people or livestock, and it certainly can cause all sorts of problems for trout and other vertebrate species.”

Stelfox and Donahue recently completed a study estimating the impact of eight potential open-pit coal projects on the headwaters of the Oldman River system. Efforts to remove selenium will likely have to be sustained for hundreds if not thousands of years, potentially affecting the river as far downstream as Lethbridge, said Stelfox.

The study was commissioned by the Livingstone Landowners Group, which includes ranchers who will be affected if coal development proceeds in the Eastern Slopes. As part of a separate independent analysis earlier this year, Donahue also looked at data from a provincial monitoring program at several sites that included the McLeod River starting in 1998.

“And so, in all of those sites, basically within two years of starting their monitoring, they identified huge problems with selenium, you know, exceedances of the levels needed to protect aquatic life by more than tenfold,” he said. However, Environment and Parks’ response “seems to have been a collective shrug … from about 2003 to now, essentially, no one ever looked at the data.”

Donahue said the lack of response rendered provincial guidelines essentially meaningless.

However, Nixon has pointed to a decision June 17 by a joint review panel of the AER denying a proposed open-pit mine at Grassy Mountain near Blairmore, Alta. As part of a joint statement with Energy Minister Sonya Savage, he said “the panel’s recommendation demonstrates that Alberta’s legislative and regulatory framework is robust and thoroughly considers environmental impacts as part of any resource development project.”

Donahue said the decision doesn’t mean other coal projects won’t be approved. “Exploration is continuing, the proposals for the mines are continuing, so am I confident those mines won’t open or that the regulator will reject them? Absolutely not.”

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