The Rockies and Coal Mining
Rockies and Coal Extraction.
See our Letters on Coal Policy and Southern Alberta @ Letters to Government.
Coal, Calcite and Cutthroats
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
26 November 2020
Calcite build-up on streambeds is an environmental hazard of open-pit mountaintop coal mining proposed in the headwaters of the Oldman River. As with selenium pollution, described in a previous article, water flowing through waste rock accumulated during the coal mining process dissolves calcium carbonate and carries it downstream. Unlike selenium, calcium carbonate is not considered a toxic pollutant in water. However, when calcium carbonate reaches a high enough concentration, it solidifies into calcite. The process is similar to the buildup that forms in tea kettles and humidifiers. Calcite coats the stream bottom and, in effect, turns it into concrete. In some cases streambed sands and gravels can only be broken free with hammer blows.
Where calcite accumulates, the stream bottom becomes uninhabitable to invertebrates that form the base of the aquatic food chain. Aquatic plants are smothered. Trout that use an undulating movement to flush sediment and excavate hollows in loose gravels for laying eggs, referred to as redds, can no longer spawn. This is especially devasting to native cutthroat and bull trout, both “threatened” species, federally and provincially.
In reaches where a stream bottom becomes cemented, bank erosion increases causing more sediment to be released and the stream to over-widen. This impact on streams has previously been observed in Eastern Slopes watersheds experiencing a high degree of surface disturbance from logging and other industrial development, including Racehorse Creek and Dutch Creek. Adverse effects on reproduction of native trout have been noted.
Calcite formation is occurring downstream of coal mines operated by Teck Resources Limited in southeastern BC in the Elk River valley. Monitoring has detected increase in calcite over time with 30% of the river and stream channels surveyed in 2018 impacted by calcite at levels higher than background. Recent studies to assess effects on Westslope Cutthroat Trout, a Species at Risk, found density of redds decreased as calcite concentration increased in stream reaches.
Teck, under its permit to operate, is required by Environment and Climate change Canada to reduce calcite levels in mine-affected streams in the Elk Valley. This direction is issued under the federal Fisheries Act. Since October, 2017 the company is experimenting with adding antiscalant (a chemical that inhibits formation and precipitation of crystallized mineral salts) to a stream to inhibit formation of calcite. A geo-synthetic cover over waste rock is also being tried to prevent water leaching of calcium carbonate. Cost of these mitigation measures is estimated to be several hundred million dollars.
The proposed Grassy Mountain Mine north of Blairmore straddles the valleys of two streams that are habitat for Westslope Cutthroat Trout – Blairmore Creek and Gold Creek, tributaries of the Crowsnest River. This native species once inhabited most streams in southwestern Alberta from the alpine to the prairies, but now occupies only a small fraction of its original distribution. A strategy for recovery of its habitat has been developed and is in the process of being implemented. If the mine is allowed to proceed, recovery efforts will be undercut and calcite build-up in spawning habitat would become one more risk pushing this threatened species to the brink of extinction.
Selenium's Impact on the Environment
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
23 October 2020
As residents living along the Oldman River anticipate the impacts of open-pit coal mining in our headwaters, we should know more about the potential changes in water quality and their effects on river health and, therefore, our health.
Open-pit coal mining involves the removal of rock that sits above the coal seams that the mining company targets for extraction. This rock, or overburden, is typically dumped into the river valleys near the mine where it is exposed to weathering. It is the weathering process that releases pollutants like cadmium, nitrate, sulphate, iron, uranium and selenium into the environment over time – in the form of particulates in the air but, more significantly, into river systems.
Like some other elements, selenium is biphasic which means that it is necessary for life in small concentrations but becomes toxic to aquatic species in concentrations as low as 1.5 mg/l. Selenium ions are soluble in water, so they don’t settle in containment ponds. When released to the environment, selenium (as selenite and selenides) bioaccumulates in the aquatic system. That is, the selenium increases in concentration as it passes from plankton to aquatic invertebrates to fish that live higher in the food web. As such, fish are an important indicator species for water contamination of this type. Species that consume fish along the food chain, like birds and even humans, are also at risk of the health impacts resulting from higher selenium accumulating in their bodies.
You may have heard about the long-term environmental damage and health impacts in Appalachia or in the coal mining regions of Australia. Closer to home, however, look across the continental divide, to the Elk Valley, where mountaintop coal mining has been conducted for many years. Industry water quality reports have indicated a steady rise of selenium and other pollutants in rivers downstream of these coal mining operations. It is no surprise that the Regional Aquatic Effects Monitoring Program (RAEMP) has measured increased levels of selenium in aquatic species that pose greater risks for birth defects and reproductive failures. Trout populations downstream of Tech coal mines have reportedly collapsed in recent years.
In response to this issue, the United States has very recently set selenium standards for transboundary waters, an issue that British Columbia has shown a reluctance to address. This is complicated by the admission of major coal operators that they are unable to control the release of selenium pollution. In other words, once the damage is done, it is virtually impossible to contain, and it persists for decades.
In summary, selenium is one of a number of water pollutants that can be expected from mountaintop removal techniques of coal mining in Alberta’s eastern slopes. We have a current example of rising selenium levels in the Elk and Fording Rivers using the same techniques in similar bedrock as is proposed in our headwaters. And, the technology is not available to control the release of selenium into rivers nor address pollution over the long term after it happens.
The Government of Alberta recently changed the Coal Policy to allow open pit coal mining along the eastern slopes, with the exception of Category 1 land. This, in effect, was in direct response to the expressed desires of mining companies to streamline the application process. Though these sorts of projects may create some employment in the short term, there seems to be little consideration of the environmental impacts in the long term. Residents along the Oldman River rely on safe water for an agriculturally-based economy, including water demand for irrigation and livestock operations, not to mention human use. There is mounting opposition to the unilateral decision to change the Coal Policy that allows these sorts of coal mining operations to operate in our region – your MLA may want to hear your opinion.
Grassy Mountain Coal Project Joint Review Panel (October 2020). https://iaac-aeic.gc.ca/050/evaluations/exploration?projDocs=80101
... Oldman Watershed Council Submission: https://iaac-aeic.gc.ca/050/documents/p80101/136088E.pdf
‘You can’t rebuild a mountain’: fallout of open-pit mining discussed. Lethbridge Herald (October 3, 2020). https://lethbridgeherald.com/news/lethbridge-news/2020/10/03/you-cant-rebuild-a-mountain-fallout-of-open-pit-mining-discussed/
Acute Selenium Toxicity. US National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3225252/
Koocanusa Exceeds Selenium Standard. Elk Valley Coal News (July 19, 2020). https://elkvalleycoal.com/koocanusa-exceeds-seleium-standard/
Deadly Waters: Trout Populations Collapse Below Tech Coal Mines (March 19, 2020).https://wildsight.ca/blog/2020/03/19/deadly-waters-trout-population-collapse-below-teck-coal-mines/
Montana Proposes New Rules to Stem Canadian Coal Mine Pollution. Montana Public Radio (September 25, 2020). https://www.mtpr.org/post/montana-proposes-new-rules-stem-canadian-coal-mine-pollution
EPA Weighs in on Teck Water Treatment Closure. Montana Watershed Coordination Council. https://mtwatersheds.org/app/news-item/epa-weighs-in-on-teck-water-treatment-closure/
U.S. demands explanation from province over river pollution from B.C. mines. CBC (May 11, 2020). https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/us-epa-pollution-rivers-teck-mines-bc-1.5564269
Technical Report Overview (2017). Teck Coal Ltd. https://www.teck.com/media/Permit-107517-Annual-Water-Quality-Monitoring-Report,2017-(March-31,2018).pdf
Elk River Watershed and Lake Koocanusa British Columbia, Aquatic Environment Sythnesis Report (2014) https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/environment/waste-management/industrial-waste/industrial-waste/mining-smelt-energy/area-based-man-plan/annexes/elk_river_aquatic_env_synthesis_report_oct_2014.pdf
Screening assessment Selenium and its compounds. Government of Canada (2017). https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/evaluating-existing-substances/screening-assessment-selenium.html
Understanding and Documenting the Scientific Basis of Selenium Ecological Protection in Support of Site-Specific Guidelines Development for Lake Koocanusa, Montana, U.S.A., and British Columbia, Canada. U.S. Geological Survey (2020). https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/ofr20201098
Riversdale Resources Grassy Mountain Coal Project: Surface Water Quality Environmental Impact Assessment Report. Benga Mining Ltd. (2015). https://iaac-aeic.gc.ca/050/documents/p80101/103934E.pdf
Analysis of water quality conditions and trends for the long-term river network: Oldman River, 1966-2055. Government of Alberta (2007). https://open.alberta.ca/publications/9780778554691
Is Mountaintop Coal Mining in the Oldman headwaters worth the Risk?
Published in, Lethbridge Herald
15 August 2020
For the first time in four decades, headwaters of the Oldman River are again under threat from open pit coal mining.
Expansive scars of coal mines on Tent Mountain south of Coleman and Grassy Mountain mine north of Blairmore, projects that fizzled out by 1980, remain stark reminders of companies that left without cleaning up their mess. The Alberta Coal Policy adopted by the Lougheed government in 1976 restricted coal exploration and development along the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains due to 'marginal economic benefits' and 'important environmental values, such as wildlife migration and headwaters areas'. With rescinding of that policy by the current government, coal companies are back proposing to reopen and expand surface mining on Tent Mountain and Grassy Mountain and explore large areas of mountainous country west of the Livingstone Range north to the Highwood River.
Coal mining, particularly surface mining in mountains, is one of the most brutal assaults by humans on the Earth. The changes in natural landscapes and headwaters ecosystems are profound. Vegetation and soils that have evolved over millennia are stripped to reveal ancient bedrock. Using explosives and some of the largest machines on earth, mountaintops are shattered and removed to expose coal seams. 'Overburden' is dumped into adjacent valleys. Roads are carved into the diminishing mountain sides to haul extracted coal away in giant trucks to valley bottom processing plants. Water falling as rain and snow that was naturally absorbed by vegetation and soil rushes unchecked and unfiltered to valley-bottom streams that become seriously disrupted by altered flows and contaminants. Resident fish and wildlife are destroyed or displaced for untold generations.
John Prine captured for the 60’s generation the profound sense of destruction and loss that is wrought by mountaintop coal mining in his song Paradise – 'Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away'. To witness the loss of a mountain paradise by coal mining, southern Albertans don’t need to travel all the way to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky but rather can peer across the continental divide into the Elk River and its tributary valleys (including Fording River) in British Columbia. Five massive open-pit coal projects, operated by Teck Resources, have flattened mountains and filled valleys with piles of rubble. Biodiversity has been significantly impacted, including habitats for whitebark pine, Westslope cutthroat trout, grizzly bear and bighorn sheep.
A more insidious impact is the selenium that leaches from the previously buried rock now exposed to air and water. Naturally occurring in soils and plants, selenium is an essential trace element in healthy diets of animals and humans. However at high concentrations selenium can cause neurological disorders in humans, liver damage and paralysis in other animals, and birth defects and reproductive failure in fish. Waterborne selenium can enter the food chain where it bio accumulates. Toxic effects of selenium on aquatic life, fish and birds have been documented in the mountaintop coal mining regions of the Appalachians and more recently the Elk Valley of BC, extending up to 200 kilometres downstream in Montana. Sparwood’s drinking water supply has become contaminated.
Residents of the Oldman River Basin rely on plentiful, clean water flowing from the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains for survival and economic well-being including food production. Southern Albertans value our headwaters region for its scenic natural landscapes, wildlife and unsurpassed outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities. Experience elsewhere confirms that mountaintop coal mining places all that at risk. Albertans in the 1970s, based on experience, decided it was not worth the risk.
Why does today’s government think it is?
Off the Beaten Path with Chris & Connie
Tent Mountain Was Torn a New One
Alberta Coal Policy (1976): Alberta Wilderness Association Briefing Note. (PDF)
Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining. Yale Environment 360 (October 13, 2009)
Elk Valley Cumulative Effects Assessment and Management Report. 2018. (PDF)
Selenium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.
Mountaintop mining poisons fish. Science News (March 1, 2010).
From Canadian Coal Mines, Toxic Pollution That Knows No Borders. Yale Environment 360 (April 1, 2019)