A conveyor belt transports coal at the Westmoreland Coal Co.’s Sheerness Mine near Hanna, Alta., on Tuesday, 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., on Tuesday, 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

The Alberta government is developing a plan for public consultation on coal-mining

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 was not immediately available for comment.

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

Albertacoal mine

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alex Panetta
Economists “cautiously hopeful” for economic recovery in Alberta

Charles St. Arnaud says Alberta’s recover will rebound along with roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw acknowledged that Friday would be one year since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the province. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Three more Red Deer COVID-19 deaths, 331 active cases in Alberta

Red Deer is down to 362 active cases of the virus

The remains of Terry Bearden’s property before a demolition crew came in to remove debris. (Photo submitted)
Rimbey arson case may have a lead thanks to reward offered by owner

Anonymous tip alleges the fire was set by three local males

hands
The call is out in Rimbey to sign on with a group that is all about building connections

‘Already, we are building a network where we can rely on each other and help each other out’

A health-care worker looks at a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Palais de Congress site as Quebec begins mass vaccinations based on age across the province, Monday, March 1, 2021 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Nearly 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses arriving in Canada this week: Anand

Anita Anand says she’s received assurances from the vaccine manufacturer

Walter Gretzky father of hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky waves to fans as the Buffalo Sabres play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky, father of the Great One, dies at 82

Canada’s hockey dad had battled Parkinson’s disease and other health issues

This Dec. 2, 2020 photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows vials of its Janssen subsidiary’s COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Johnson & Johnson via AP
Canada approves Johnson & Johnson’s 1-shot COVID-19 vaccine

It is the 4th vaccine approved in Canada and the 1st that requires just a single dose

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Pandemic stress, isolation key factors as to why Canadians turned to cannabis, alcohol

Study found that isolation played key role in Canadians’ substance use

Backcountry skiers are dwarfed by the mountains as they make their way along a mountain ridge near McGillivray Pass Lodge located in the southern Chilcotin Mountains of British Columbia, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. Avalanche Canada has issued a special warning to people who use the backcountry in the mountains of western Alberta and eastern British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Avalanche Canada special warning for mountains in western Alberta, eastern B.C.

Avalanche Canada also says everyone in a backcountry party needs essential rescue gear

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Federal panel recommends 4-month gap between COVID vaccine doses due to limited supply

The recommendation applies to all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada

FILE - Dolly Parton arrives at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Grammy-winning singer, actor and humanitarian posted a video on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, of her singing just before getting her COVID-19 vaccine shot. Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee for coronavirus research. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
‘Vaccine, vaccine’: Dolly sings ‘Jolene’ rewrite before shot

The Grammy-winning legend turned 75 this year

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland speaks about the Fiscal update during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday November 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
COVID-19: Wage and rent subsidies, lockdown support to be extended until June

Chrystia Freeland says now is not time to lower levels of support

Many rural seniors are having to travel a long way to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Stettler residents are being told to go to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose. (Black Press file photo).
Rural central Alberta seniors have to travel far to get vaccines

Stettler residents are being directed to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose clinics

Most Read