June 16th, 2024

Think we are safe from coal mining? Think again

By Lethbridge Herald on March 17, 2022.


Albertans may have breathed a sigh of relief last week when Premier Jason Kenney and Sonya Savage, his energy minister, announced a “pause” in the issuing of permits to operate open-pit coal mines in the eastern slopes of the Rockies. If they did, their relief was premature.

The government’s new policy was announced in conjunction with the release of the report of its Coal Policy Committee, which had heard from close to 30,000 Albertans, one of whom was me. My submission dealt with the danger of selenium poisoning our rivers and other waters if such surface mining was permitted. Selenium poisoning affects not only fish and other wildlife, but livestock and humans as well. (One small town in B.C. had to abandon one of its groundwater wells because pollution from the river migrated into the well that had formerly provided it with safe water. The mining company also supplied bottled water to landowners whose private wells contain selenium exceeding the B.C. standard).

The committee correctly identified selenium as a problem in its report, and recommended more study. However, study after study has shown that the only way to deal with selenium poisoning is not to set it up in the first place.

One part of the problem is that mining in steeply dipping rocks means that tonnes of rock must be moved – about six tonnes of waste rock for every tonne of coal – in order to get at the coal.

The waste rock is either dumped on a hillside or in the nearest valley. At the Teck Coal operations in the Elk River valley in B.C., where the rocks are the same as those for the proposed mines in Alberta, Teck Coal in one year produced 24 million tonnes of coal and 140 million tonnes of waste rock. It is estimated that there are now several billion tonnes of waste rock piled up in the Elk River valley, and it is this rock – not the coal itself – that is the major cause of the problem.

The selenium, contained in the mineral pyrite, is pretty well locked into place as long as the rock is not disturbed. But cracked up and left to weather in piles, rain, snow-melt and air do their work, and selenium is released. The waste water that issues from the bottom of these piles carries the selenium down the slopes, first in rivulets, then in streams and finally into great rivers. The Oldman is particularly at risk in Alberta.

You cannot wrap mountains of waste rock in tarpaulins to prevent this process. It goes on despite anything that the most well-intentioned mining company can do. In 2014 Teck Coal opened a $600 million plant, designed to treat waste water by both biological and chemical means. It was heralded as a ‘state-of-the-art’ solution. Six months later Teck had to shut the plant down because it was converting selenium into a form even more lethal to fish stocks. As far as I know, the company has still not been able to find a solution. Furthermore, the problem is long-term. Nobody reading this today will be alive when selenium stops issuing from waste rock exposed in our time. It has been calculated that after a mine closes, it will take 150 years for the last of the selenium to trickle out of its waste rock pile.

Severe though this problem is, it is not the worst that is encountered when strip mining is practiced in selenium-bearing rock. That honour goes to the process that produces what the industry calls, with no sense of irony, clean coal. The name is misleading. It would have you believe that this coal was going to chip in and do its bit for the environment, but such is not the case. All that ‘clean coal’ means is that, to satisfy market demands, the coal has been given a bath.

This process takes enormous quantities of water and may also involve the use of chemicals, increasing its toxicity. These waters are then stored in pit lakes for what mining companies call “sufficient water residence time.” Selenium in the water in pit lakes may be up to 300 times that found in the average surface water. And these pit lakes can be a disaster waiting to happen.

The Committee report cites research (not mine) which describes the catastrophic failure of one of the berms at the Obed mine, west of Edmonton, on Oct. 31, 2013. On that day, 670 million litres of fluid mine waste and 90,000 tonnes of sediment were dumped first into the Apetowun and Plante creeks and thence to the Athabasca River. The toxic waste did not immediately mix into the river’s water and get diluted. It is not like adding milk to your coffee, when a couple of stirs with a spoon will get it mixed. The waste water from the Obed mine was carried some 1,100 kilometres by the Athabasca River – roughly the distance from Edmonton to Vancouver – and traces of the plume were found north of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, about 16 kilometers downstream of Lake Athabasca’s outflow…meaning that the plume had reached and exited Lake Athabasca.

If pit lakes on our eastern slopes were to suffer a similar disaster, Alberta-produced selenium would flow across the provincial boundary into Saskatchewan, to collect in Lake Diefenbaker.

Kenney’s government has announced that strip mining for coal is to go ahead, honouring permits that were issued at a time when Albertans had every reason to believe that this area was still covered by a long-term protection policy. This is in spite of warnings from the findings of many scientists about the dangers of selenium. I do not believe that we can accept this decision. We need to be told what it will cost to cancel the permissions to mining companies which our government signed on our behalf, and we need to seriously weigh this against the cost in terms of the health of wildlife, livestock and humans. I believe we will come to the conclusion that nothing short of a total and immediate ban on surface mining on these slopes will do.

Brian Hitchon, Ph.D., P.Geol., F.G.S.


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Southern Albertan

Hear, hear! Could not be said better! Any politics in Alberta who would ban this surface mining will get my vote. And this also goes for the NDP who has apparently, supposedly, previously, allowed some surface mining in the Ram River area west of Rocky Mountain House to go ahead. The risks all around certainly do outweigh the benefits, glaringly. So let’s hear the platforms everyone….a complete ban is what I want to hear.


spot on!


full support

Fedup Conservative

Great comments guys. While these Reformers treat us like morons they are gradually forcing us into a privatized health care and education system and destroying everything Lougheed created. Who cares it our water supply is destroyed. We do.
While they slash $9.4 billion off taxes to benefit their rich friends they try to cut wages for medical staff who have gone through hell with Covid. After cutting the minimum wages for students they slash University Funding and force students to pay a 40% more for tuition. While they try to drive out the RCMP to form a police state with them in control so they can use the police against anyone who doesn’t support them Hitler style. But that’s not enough.
While Brian Jean proved he was the worse liar we have ever seen as leader of the Wildrose Party so Albertans took a chance at electing Jason Kenney as leader of the UCP now stupid Albertans are giving Jean a second chance to prove he is a bigger liar than Kenney. This is the guy who blamed Notley for the loss of 100,000 jobs when those of us know it was the oil industry crash a year before she was elected. He brought back the Ralph Klein lie that Alberta is broke because they have had to send billions to Ottawa and Quebec in the form of Equalization Payments when Alberta hasn’t paid a penny into Equalization Payments. He claimed if Ottawa doesn’t give us what we want we should separate from Canada. Of course it would force us into total financial ruin and seniors would be forced to give up their Old Age security payments , Canada Pension Plan payments, and Public Health Care benefits but these fools don’t care.
Yet we have all these stupid seniors believing every lie they feed them and somehow that makes them a lot smarter than us. Maybe the American Oilmen I was involved with were right Albertans are the dumbest people on the planet.
Lawyers say that Alberta is the largest example of fraud the world has ever scene and its been done legally because stupid Albertans have allowed it to happen. Reformers helping their rich friends steal our oil , gas and tax wealth and we aren’t smart enough to stop it.


hot air nimby probably drives an environmentally friendly EV. Sells Alberta out to China and Russia but has moral superiority in Alberta lol