One former coal mine in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains is releasing a pollutant toxic to fish at rates dozens of times higher than federal and provincial guidelines, while another periodically spews water so high in iron it turns the coals orange. local streams, according to research.
The findings, made by provincial government scientists who were not available to speak to reporters, raise questions about who is responsible for cleaning up legacy industrial sites.
“Our results reveal novel evidence that coal mining activities in the Crowsnest River basin have been impacting downstream ecosystems for decades,” says the paper, recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution.
Its three authors, all employed by Alberta Environment and Protected Areas when the research was conducted, studied the Grassy Mountain and Tent Mountain sites in southwestern Alberta.
Significant, although intermittent, coal mining has occurred at both sites. Grassy Mountain had surface and underground activity from 1910 to 1975 and Tent Mountain was open pit mined from 1948 to 1983.
Operations at Tent Mountain, now the site of a proposed renewable energy project, accumulated decades of waste rock next to a retention pond that feeds water to the Crowsnest River.
“A network of rivulet marks evident on the face of the waste rock pile attest to the long-term movement of surface water down (and through) the waste rock pile and directly into Pond 3A,” the document says.
That pond now has concentrations of selenium, an element highly toxic to fish that impairs their ability to reproduce, ranging between 112 and 185 micrograms per liter.
The governments of Canada, the United States and Alberta say the safe limit for selenium to protect aquatic life is between one and two micrograms.
Government scientists publish paper on surprisingly high levels of pollution from coal mines in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. #carbon #abpoli
Pond 3A flows into Crowsnest Creek, which runs through a wetland at the base of Tent Mountain. Much of the selenium remains there.
“Selenium bioaccumulates in aquatic habitats and may be toxic to fish and wildlife at the concentrations observed,” the article says.
Downstream of that wetland, just before the creek empties into Crowsnest Lake, selenium concentrations were still at or above the upper limits, sometimes four times higher than Alberta’s guidelines.
The document says selenium in the lake is elevated compared to unaffected streams in the area.
Grassy Mountain, where a company hopes to restart coal mining, is raising fewer concerns about selenium because the waste rock is more dispersed, the paper says. But in July 2022, scientists noticed a problem in a nearby stream.
“Over a brief 48-hour period, the water quality in Blairmore Creek changed noticeably and the water turned a rusty orange color,” the document says.
The team traced rusty water to the entrance of an old mine and measured its iron content at nearly 30 times federal guidelines.
“This discharge event was presumably due to an unknown hydrological (natural) factor,” the document says. “Periodic discharges of orange water have been observed since the 1970s.”
The Canadian Press contacted Alberta Environment on January 15 to request an interview with the perpetrators, two of whom remain public employees.
A spokesman said the scientists were not available and asked for a list of questions. A list was provided Friday, but no response was received, not even to a question about why the scientists couldn’t talk about their research.
The third author, who now works in the United States, said he would not discuss his research for fear of legal retaliation from the province.
In Alberta, holders of a development permit for a site are responsible for the above environmental obligations.
Tent Mountain is currently covered by a permit owned by Evolve Power, which hopes to use Pond 3A to store water for a pumped hydroelectric project.
Evolve did not respond to a request for comment on how it plans to fix the selenium issues.
The previous permit holder, Montem Resources, had a plan to remediate selenium from its proposed coal mine, but it is unclear how, or if, the plan applies to the current project.
Grassy Mountain is currently being explored for coal by Australian company Northback Resources, which hopes to reopen the site for mining.
Federal law prohibits the discharge of “harmful to fish” materials into fish farming waters. The streams flowing from both sites are the headwaters of many trout streams, including endangered native species, which already face threats from infections such as eddy disease.
“(Environment Canada) is aware of the historic coal mines at Grassy Mountain and Tent Mountain and has conducted multiple inspections at the Grassy Mountain mine,” spokesperson Nicole Allen said in an email.
“If…law enforcement officers find evidence of an alleged violation of the pollution prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act, they will take appropriate action.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2024.