A tailings pond at a coal mine in the Alberta Rockies. | AER photo Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Recurring incidents of wastewater overflows at mine sites have the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) seriously concerned about environmental impacts and public safety now and into the future.

Even the manner of the Alberta Energy Regulator’s (AER) announcement is discouraging, said Gillian Chow-Fraser, boreal program director with CPAWS.

“We were surprised, honestly. It was on Twitter that I just saw the announcement from the regulator,” she said.

“It was so striking because there have been so many of these wastewater overflow incidents that have happened already this spring. What was also very striking was just how little information there really was in the announcement.”

The tweet was accompanied by an announcement on the AER’s website stating that energy development sites, including coal mines in the Hinton and Grande Cache areas, had been impacted by heavy rain across the province, which caused “flooding and excessive surface runoff.”  

“There have been no reported impacts to public safety,” the statement read, adding that the incidents did cause damage to mine wastewater infrastructure due to erosion from the rain.  

“Under normal operating conditions, these ponds are designed and approved to collect runoff so the sediment can settle prior to the water being released into the environment.”

The AER’s Compliance Dashboard reports mine wastewater runoff incidents at facilities operated by Prairie Mines, Coalspur Mines and CST Coal.

Wastewater originating from these mines was released into the Lovett River, Erith River and Chance Creek near Robb, the McPherson Creek near Hinton and the Smoky River near Grande Cache.

None of the incidents on the dashboard give any further details including the constituents of the wastewater or the volume of the runoff.

Each incident, however, does state, “Company is working to manage the high flow rates.”

In an email to The Fitzhugh, the AER said that is the extent of the information it is able to share.

That leaves Chow-Fraser speculating about the chemicals that are commonly used in coal mine operations, including selenium.

“It’s really actually quite crucial to understand, do they even know what was in that water that discharged? And how much?” she said.

“The piece about the infrastructure actually eroding then lends a lot of fear about what might be happening as the spring melt continues. As the aftermath of these floodings continue, will there be more incidents like this? How can you improve infrastructure while it’s still happening? All really big concerns.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t heard anything else from the regulator on this, or from the companies. It’s one thing to put an announcement out to try to have that transparency with the public. But it also comes down to what information – the quality of that information – that’s being shared to help build that trust as well.”

The Fitzhugh requested comments from each of the mining companies as well. The only response received was from Jon P. Heroux, corporate counsel for external affairs at Westmoreland Mining LLC/Prairie Mines and Royalty ULC.

“Recent releases of surface water at both the Coal Valley and Obed mines this past Monday were due to an unusually intense rain event that overwhelmed the entire region and exceeded the water control capacity of the mines – which were designed, and subsequently approved by AER, to handle a 100-year storm event. The water released is only surface runoff and did not contain any chemicals or other substances that would adversely affect the environment,” he stated, thanking the AER for its continued assistance in response to the event.  

“Weather conditions, now and into the future, are going to be outside of what was considered ‘normal’ when the mines were initially approved,” stated CPAWS Program Director Tara Russell in a press statement on June 22.  

“Companies need to drastically adapt to a changing climate, including upgrading infrastructure to prevent these spills. This incident continues a pattern of disregard for environmental impacts by companies and the regulator.”  

Chow-Fraser said that CPAWS’ concerns for the environment are far from being allayed.

“If unsafe activities are happening, the public has a right to know about it. They have a right to know how and why, and how it won’t happen ever again. I think that this is more of a pattern of the regulator and these companies really downplaying environmental impacts of these mines,” she said.  

“By putting out an announcement that is just stating that, ‘this happened, it’s been dealt with, there’s no public health impacts…’ you’re definitely glossing over all of the environmental impacts of that kind of release. You’re missing crucial pieces of information, which again is almost just trying to really dilute the impacts of what has happened.”

She said that it’s especially concerning since this is the third incident for CST Coal in slightly more than six months. Approximately 107,000 litres of coal wash water was released on Dec. 29, 2022 and approximately 1.1 million litres of coal fines (water and coal fine particles) were released into the Smoky River on March 4.

By Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 29, 2023 at 12:00

This item reprinted with permission from    The Fitzhugh    Jasper, Alberta
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