By Dale Woodard on April 9, 2021.
Dust in the wind was the topic as the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs held its online presentation Thursday morning.
However, this particular talk didn’t have anything to do with the Kansas classic.
Rather, the tune of this chat geared toward the harm that comes from nearby coal mines as retired doctor Allan Garbutt took the virtual podium to discuss the risks of open pit coal mining in southwest Alberta.
Garbutt noted the famous “Chinook Country” winds, particularly between November and April.
“Those of us who live around here know you spend a great deal of the period between November and April trying not to get blown off the planet,” he said.
Benga Mining Ltd (Riversdale), as part of their application, completed their assessments of wind speed, dust and particle size as part of their Environmental Impact Assessment for their Grassy Mountain Open-Pit coal mining proposal.
Garbutt argued Benga’s Environmental Impact Assessment contains flaws and inaccuracies in methodology and the time-frame of data collection, resulting in underestimating the amount and movement of micro dust particles and the distance micro and larger dust particles would be carried by the winds, resulting in errors in the data of Environmental Impact Assessment submissions.
“The energy that wind conveys to dust is basically a function primarily of the velocity of the wind,” said Garbutt. “The energy that goes into the dust particle depends on the weight of the particle. But it’s the velocity squared, which makes the biggest difference.
“The mining company submitted, I believe, 12 addendums to their initial report to the joint review panel. The claim of 60km per hour as a top speed persisted at least until the eighth addendum. Considering there were approximately 15,000 pages in the documents. I can’t claim I read everything in addendums nine, 10, 11 and 12, but I read virtually everything up to addendum eight.”
Garbutt said Benga installed two stations on the mine site to collect wind data.
“Neither of them was there for the full period, but the combined two stations covered approximately mid-June to mid-October. It was a little surprising, but if you don’t want to get high wind speed, you wouldn’t measure when we have high wind speeds.”
Garbutt said the standard protocol for getting annual data is installing a weather station and keeping it there for at least a year.
“We know they only kept it there for the better part of four months and in a standard wind station the anemometer, the device that measures wind speeds, is installed at a height of 10 metres above ground because wind speeds drop dramatically as you get closer to the ground.”
Garbutt said their anemometer was at two metres above ground level.
“So we have wind data that is collected at the time of year when you will not likely get our maximum winds and you get it collected at a height that will reduce speed. Remember, we are talking about the energy that goes into the dust particles and how far they will go. There is a protocol for determining how far particles go. You plug in the numbers you get from your weather station into the formula.”
Garbutt spoke of what happens to people when coal dust exits the mine.
“The workers in the mine can at least, in theory, be protected,” he said. “You can give them masks and put them in sealed cabs. The general public isn’t going to be able to wear a mask 24/7, they’re not going to be in sealed spaces.”
As for the impacts of coal dust on people outside the mine, Garbutt said much of the research has been done looking at relatively large particles and medium-sized particles.
“Those are relatively easy to work on and we also have equipment that will measure them carefully,” he said. “The smallest particles, we have some difficulties with. We don’t have good equipment that’s easy to deploy in a real world setting. They’re working on it, but we don’t have really good information on it yet.”
The largest particles don’t get into people or animals very deeply, said Garbutt.
“They’re relatively large, they’re easily trapped and when they do get into the upper airway, which is about as far as they go, they’re relatively easily removed through a mucus transport system.”
The medium sized particles, said Garbutt, can get deeper into the lungs.
“But not generally (far) in. They get trapped by the mulitude of filters in the airway.”
The smallest particles, however, are almost gas-like at times and can reach the deepest part of the lungs, said Garbutt.
“They’re hard to clear because they got so far into the lungs there isn’t a really good removal system in place. The particles have an ability after they get to the deepest part of the lungs to damage things in a variety of ways. We work on the assumption the dust can get in and it has the potential to do things. Do we have any way to prove it?”
Garbutt pointed to some research by Michael Hendryx of the University of West Virginia and Indiana State and a few other researchers had done on strip mining in Appalachia.
“Mostly what is called mountain top removal, which is essentially you turn mountains into mole hills,” said Garbutt. “You knock the top off, push it into the valley, grab the coal out of the middle of the mountain and leave a mess behind.”
Garbutt said Hendryx and his researchers have produced more than 30 papers on health affects in Appalachia.
“These are all epidemiology,” he said. “You can’t prove a particle of X-size of this chemistry landed on that cell and did the bad things. But if you can look at tens of thousands of people living with exposure to coal dust versus tens of thousands of people living without exposure to coal dust you can come up with some ideas.”
Garbutt said Hendryx and his researchers compensated for socio-economic status such as smoking, alcohol and a large number of variables.
“When you work your way through it, living near a coal mine is bad for you,” said Garbutt. “There are variety of problems that come up. There is more asthma, heart disease, strokes and lung disease and that’s not just black lung. There is more kidney disease, premature births, more babies born at a low birth weight and there is even more dementia.”
“The researcher can even give you a timeline on when specific health problems will start to arise,” added Garbutt. “Asthsma is the first thing that starts to go up and it makes its appearance approximately two years after a mine goes in. It’s particularly bad with kids. Dementia takes considerably longer. Those rates don’t start to rise for more than 10 years.”
Garbutt said all Benga was required to do at their hearing was to present information that dust wasn’t going to go far or cause problems.
“The counter evidence from opponents was presented and how the joint review panel will weigh that, we won’t know probably until the middle of June,” he said. “The conclusion has to be that coal dust is hazardous to health and people shouldn’t breath it. Then you have to look if there’s any practical way to keep people from breathing it. Unfortunately, in this part of the world you can’t wrap everybody up in protective gear. So the only solution I can see is no coal mines.”
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