A conveyor belt transports coal at the Westmoreland Coal Co.’s Sheerness Mine near Hanna, Alta., onTuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. One of North America’s top experts on coal mine pollution is warning Albertans about the dangers of expanding the industry in the province’s Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

A conveyor belt transports coal at the Westmoreland Coal Co.’s Sheerness Mine near Hanna, Alta., onTuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. One of North America’s top experts on coal mine pollution is warning Albertans about the dangers of expanding the industry in the province’s Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

‘Hollow promises’: Top coal scientist warns Albertans of contamination from mining

‘Effective treatment doesn’t exist’

One of North America’s top experts on pollution from coal mines is warning Albertans about the dangers of expanding the industry in the province’s Rocky Mountains.

“Expansion of coal-mining up the Alberta Rockies chain will absolutely produce an environmental disaster for fish and wildlife health in what are now pristine, high-quality watersheds,” Dennis Lemly wrote in an email to The Canadian Press.

Lemly is a retired U.S. government scientist who has published dozens of papers with hundreds of citations on coal-mining’s impact.

“Have you ever seen an environmentally clean coal mine?” Lemly asked in the email. “I haven’t in my investigations with Canada, the U.S. and other countries around the world for the past 45 years.”

The Alberta government is developing a plan for public consultation on coal-mining after it backtracked on a decision to revoke a policy that had protected the mountains and foothills since 1976.

The government has repeatedly expressed its desire for a dramatically expanded industry in the region, which contains the headwaters for much of southern Alberta’s drinking water, is home to threatened species and is an iconic part of the province’s landscape.Many companies have exploration permits and one mine proposed by Benga Mining is before regulatory hearings.

In 2019, Lemly published a peer-reviewed study of Benga’s plans for coal extraction at Grassy Mountainnear the Crowsnest Pass. The study,published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy, was entered as evidence at the hearings.

Lemly, who has done consultingon coal pollution from Russia to Australia, is harshly critical of Benga’s plans to handle selenium — a chemical that can produce deformities, nerve damage and reproductive failure in fish and birds, and remains in the environment long after its original source has stopped emitting.

“Leaching of selenium and resultant biological impacts is an undisputed fact of open-pit mountaintop coal-mining,” Lemly wrotein his study. “It will inevitably happen.

“Effective treatment doesn’t exist.”

He is not reassured by Benga’s plan to treat contaminated water by storing it in the bottom layers of a wastewater pit to be transformed by microbes into a safe chemical.

“These ponds are notorious for breaching.”

Lemly also suggests that Benga’s proposed pits would be too shallow to prevent surface and contaminated water from mixing. He writes the pits would also be likely to release contaminants into nearby streams or other surface waters, putting birds and wildlife at risk.

“To date, there has been no demonstration of effective treatment of leachate wastewater to render it safe to aquatic life in receiving waters at the scale and flows emanating from coal mines,” the paper says.

“The proposed methods and techniques to protect water quality are simply hollow promises that carry no legitimate demonstration of prior success.”

Benga Mining did not respond directly to Lemly’s concerns, said Gary Houston, VP of External Affairs at Riversdale Resources, which owns Benga.

“As part of the hearing, Riversdale Resources has extensively discussed and described the measures we are taking to address water quality and to manage selenium.”

The company said the project has been designed to safely manage selenium and will use filters and centrifuges to recycle as much water used at the mine as possible.

In his paper, Lemly points out that provincial and federal regulators have failed in the past to guard against selenium contamination. High levels from existing coal mines in Alberta have failed to produce regulatory action, he writes, although the problem has been known for more than two decades.

“Despite the scientific documentation of detrimental pollution impacts, it seems that this has been a long-running case of, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ by government regulators in Alberta,” the paper says.

“Current policy by (the Alberta Energy Regulator) reveals an extremely poor understanding and recognition of the key aquatic pollutant emanating from coal mines.”

Environment Canada’s database shows no fines for selenium contamination at existing Alberta mines have ever been issued.

Lemly’s paper warns about the likelihood of selenium-laced runoff affecting fish and birds far downstream. He writes the Crowsnest River and the Oldman River Reservoir would likely be affected by the Benga mine and warns other coal mine projects would likely produce the same risks.

Lemly notes that coal mines in British Columbia continue to contaminate watersheds despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on remediation.

“This doesn’t have to repeat itself in Alberta.”

The province is expected to announce soon its plans for public consultation on coal mines. The NDP Opposition continues to hold online town-hall meetings.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Alberta is now below 3,000 active cases of COVID-19, as the province reported 2,639 Wednesday. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Red Deer below 100 active COVID-19 cases for first time since March

69.7 per cent of Albertans 12 and over have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

Premier Jason Kenney says the provincial government is doing everything it can to encourage Albertans to get vaccinated. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Travel prizes added to Alberta’s vaccine lottery

More than 40 travel rewards available for those who are fully vaccinated

Three calves were recently shot dead in Lacombe County near Mirror. (Photo from Facebook)
Calves shot and left for dead in central Alberta

Bashaw RCMP investigating three shootings

(Advocate file photo)
Red Deer down to 102 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 332 cases with 26 in hospital and five in ICU

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

A vial containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a vaccination site in Marcq en Baroeul, outside Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michel Spingler
mRNA vaccines ‘preferred’ for all Canadians, including as 2nd dose after AstraZeneca: NACI

New recommendations prioritizes Pfizer, Moderna in almost all cases

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., center left, reaches over to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., joined by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus as they celebrate the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act that creates a new federal holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people after the Civil War, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 17, 2021. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden to sign bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday

New American stat marks the nation’s end of slavery

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.-Alberta’s Indigenous languages, art and culture

Advisor says initiative supports the urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., May 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Report calls for airlines to refund passengers for flights halted due to COVID-19

Conclusion: federal help should be on the condition airlines immediately refund Canadian travellers

Green party Leader Annamie Paul speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Paul has survived another day of party strife after a planned ouster shifted course, leaving her with a tenuous grip on power ahead of a likely federal election this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Green Leader Annamie Paul blasts ‘racist,’ ‘sexist’ party execs who sought ouster

Fallout has continued, with two of the federal council’s members resigning

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S President Joe Biden shake hands during their meeting at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
Biden says meeting with Putin not a ‘kumbaya moment’

But U.S. president asserted Russian leader is interested in improved relations, averting a Cold War

Most Read