The Rockies and Coal Mining

Rockies and Coal Extraction.

See our Letters on Coal Policy and Southern Alberta @ Letters to Government.

What’s up with selenium?

Published in, Lethbridge Herald
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).

... Oldman Watershed Council Submission:

‘You can’t rebuild a mountain’: fallout of open-pit mining discussed. Lethbridge Herald (October 3, 2020).

Acute Selenium Toxicity. US National Library of Medicine.

Koocanusa Exceeds Selenium Standard. Elk Valley Coal News (July 19, 2020).

Deadly Waters: Trout Populations Collapse Below Tech Coal Mines (March 19, 2020).

Montana Proposes New Rules to Stem Canadian Coal Mine Pollution. Montana Public Radio (September 25, 2020).

EPA Weighs in on Teck Water Treatment Closure. Montana Watershed Coordination Council.

U.S. demands explanation from province over river pollution from B.C. mines. CBC (May 11, 2020).

Technical Report Overview (2017). Teck Coal Ltd.,2017-(March-31,2018).pdf

Elk River Watershed and Lake Koocanusa British Columbia, Aquatic Environment Sythnesis Report (2014)

Screening assessment Selenium and its compounds. Government of Canada (2017).

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).

Riversdale Resources Grassy Mountain Coal Project: Surface Water Quality Environmental Impact Assessment Report. Benga Mining Ltd. (2015).

Analysis of water quality conditions and trends for the long-term river network: Oldman River, 1966-2055. Government of Alberta (2007).


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?

Further Reading:

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)