Efforts to remove what are expected to be toxic levels of selenium in the Oldman River system due to potential open-pit coal mining in Alberta would likely have to be sustained for hundreds if not thousands of years, says a scientist.
The estimate is based on a study modelling what will likely happen if eight proposed metallurgical coal projects are approved in the headwaters of the river, said Brad Stelfox, a landscape ecologist with the Alces Group.
“What we were able to show is that to keep that selenium below the levels that are considered not problematic for water consumption by people or livestock or crops, (the coal) industry would probably have to take about 95 percent out,” he said.
“I’d say the coal sector has certainly improved their technologies over the decades, but doing that over a large area — and that would be required over arguably several hundred years — would be a very challenging task with a significant amount of uncertainty.”
However, Canadian coal is among the most ethically and responsibly mined in the world, said a statement June 16 by the Coal Association of Canada.
“The industry has, and will continue to adopt, a ‘multiple line of defense’ approach (for selenium) that is part of the mine design process. We are confident these approaches will satisfy both provincial and federal requirements.”
The study was commissioned by the Livingstone Landowners Group, which includes ranchers who will be affected if coal development proceeds in the Eastern Slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. The region is the source of much of the water for Canada’s prairie provinces.
The provincial government last year quietly rescinded a coal policy for Alberta dating back to 1976. The decision opened up much of the Eastern Slopes to potential open-pit mining for metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel.
The policy was reinstated Feb. 8 following widespread opposition, with all future coal development on Category 2 land paused indefinitely pending consultations for a modern coal policy for Alberta. An independent committee is currently gathering public input and is to present a final report by Nov. 15.
Stelfox undertook the study with Bill Donahue, who is a former executive director and chief environmental monitoring officer at Alberta Environment and Parks. The eight potential coal projects examined by the researchers are Grassy Mountain, Tent Mountain, Elan South, Isolation South, Cabin Ridge, Isola, 4-Stack, and Chinook (Vicary).
A joint review panel for the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) announced June 17 it had denied applications by Benga Mining Ltd. for a proposed open-pit mine at Grassy Mountain. The site is in the Crowsnest Pass area near Blairmore, Alta.
A report by the panel said “we find that the project’s significant adverse environmental effects on surface water quality and westslope cutthroat trout habitat outweigh the low to moderate positive economic impacts of the project. Therefore, we find that the project is not in the public interest.”
Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said in a joint statement June 17 the provincial government respects the decision. “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.”
Although Laura Laing of the Plateau Cattle Co. welcomed the decision, she said the ongoing fight against the provincial government’s actions in the Eastern Slopes is taking its toll on her.
Simply being a rancher is stressful enough, she said, exhaustion in her voice. “You have life and death and adversity and drought, and we’re looking at our hay fields and people are telling us the last time they looked like this was in 1986 in the big drought, so we’re again going ‘do you sell your cows, or do you buy feed and go in the hole?'”
Due to climate change and the potential for harmful environmental effects, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson announced June 11 no new thermal coal projects or expansions will be approved in Canada.
The federal government also said it will conduct an environmental review of any new coal project that could potentially release selenium. The announcement was made in a letter from Wilkinson to NDP MP Heather McPherson (Edmonton Strathcona).
The results of the Livingstone Landowners Group study were outlined June 16 at an anti-coal development event at the Rocking P Ranch near Nanton, Alta., which is owned by Mac Blades. Country singer Corb Lund performed at the event, which included about 30 landowners.
As someone whose family has been involved in ranching near Cardston, Alta., since 1902, Lund said he had sympathy for ranchers like Blades. “I would just kill myself if they made a mine out of (our land)… it’s part of my soul, so I get it.”
The study said more than 40 percent of the water in the Oldman River system’s headwaters — where cattle grazing is currently the dominant use — could be used for coal in the late summer when flows are at their lowest if all eight mines are developed.
Lund has become wary of the provincial government’s intentions. “I don’t prejudge anybody on this stuff, but so far every step of the way, the government’s been in my opinion misleading and disingenuous, like starting with quietly getting rid of the coal policy without telling anybody or consulting with anyone.”
The study suggested that if at least 90 percent of the selenium that would be created by metallurgical coal development isn’t removed, levels in the Oldman River as far downstream as Lethbridge will exceed guidelines for aquatic life.
However, it added the effects of “moderately elevated levels of selenium on humans and other organisms are poorly understood, so even concentrations that meet current regulatory guidelines may have unrealized health effects.”
Thirty-five scientists at the University of Alberta sent a letter to provincial MLAs stating April 16 that young animals, including humans, are acutely sensitive to toxins dissolved in water. “There is no reliable method to stop leaching of hazardous waste produced by surface coal mining into groundwater where, inevitably, it will pollute precious watersheds we all depend on that are already under severe stress.”
Selenium naturally occurs in rocks and trace amounts are essential to maintain life, said Stelfox. However, if concentrations in water become too high due to the break up and removal of rock overburden during coal mining, “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.”
Teck Coal Ltd. was ordered to pay a record $60 million in fines under the federal Fisheries Act on March 26. Selenium and calcite were determined to have affected waterways in 2012 in the Elk Valley of British Columbia, whose coal mines are in the same geological formation as that of the proposed mines in Alberta.