A coal slurry shame – by Martin Wissmath (Hinton Parklander – November 18, 2013)


Sherritt International Corp., the company that owns the Obed mine 30 kilometres northeast of Hinton, could now be responsible for the largest coal mining waste-water spill in Canadian history.

But could government regulators and environmental authorities have done more to prevent it from happening?
A billion litres of slurry spilled into the Athabasca River on Halloween when a storage pond at the Obed mine site broke apart.

Slurry is the concoction of materials and chemicals, including coal and thickening agents called flocculents, mixed with the water in the mine storage ponds. Coal mines in Alberta are required to contain liquid runoff to prevent it from pouring into the provincial waterways. Consider this an epic fail.

A spokesperson for Sherritt initially told the Parklander the waste-water consisted of “naturally occurring” materials, but mentioned the extra chemical agents, which are standard for coal-mining storage ponds, after further inquiry.

The spill was innocuously labelled a “sediment release” by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. And while the provincial ministry seemed to have done their due diligence by alerting municipalities along the river about the incident, they downplayed the notification as a mere precaution and underrated any potential health risks.

Still, warnings were sent not to drink from the river while the murky slurry travelled downstream. Thankfully, Hinton is upstream from the Obed site. As of Wednesday last week, the stretch of waste-water had travelled past the town of Athabasca, 145 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Hinton’s town manager re-iterated the message that the community was not adversely impacted by the massive slurry spill.
But the province’s tune changed when Alberta Environment acknowledged the billion-litre spill had adversely affected fish habitat. The Athabasca and its tributaries near Obed are a breeding area for rainbow trout, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which was also conducting an investigation into the incident.

A full assessment of the impact won’t be possible until the spring.

Even more alarming, members of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, which has a reserve near Whitecourt, say they knew nothing of the spill until they learned of it through the media, even though the province claims they were one of 10 municipalities warned. An Alexis Nakota Sioux councilman noted that many band members use drinking water from the Athabasca River and frequently fish from it.

Operations at the Obed mine were suspended in November of 2012 because of low thermal coal export prices, according to Sherritt. The company laid off 42 workers, leaving 29 people for maintenance and reclamation efforts.

Maybe they should have kept more workers there to keep that storage pond from failing. But there is that pesky corporate imperative to cut costs.

One hopes the Alberta Energy Regulator, which is investigating the cause of the slurry spill, will bring the company to account and tighten controls. As a privately-funded provincial organization, it’s tasked with upholding the reputation of industry. As frustrating as this environmental failure is, it’s the other coal mining companies who should be particularly displeased.

The Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation are one of three First Nations who will appear as interveners at an AER hearing in January to decide the fate of Coalspur’s Vista mine, a project that could become Canada’s largest thermal coal mine.

Incidents like this make it difficult to trust industrial companies; let’s hope we can at least trust the industry regulators. Hinton draws its drinking water from the Athabasca. We escaped a major contamination this time, but if another huge mine is built, even closer to Hinton, we need to be confident that our water isn’t going to be put at risk.

For the rest of this opinion piece, click here: http://www.hintonparklander.com/2013/11/18/a-coal-slurry-shame