A conveyor belt transports coal at the Westmoreland Coal Company's Sheerness Mine near Hanna, Alta., Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Coal mines can be environmentally safe and can become useful, enjoyable landscapes when the seam runs out, say scientists working with industry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Community involvement key to safe, reclaimable coal mines: industry scientists

Community involvement key to safe, reclaimable coal mines: industry scientists

Coal mines can be environmentally safe and can become useful, enjoyable landscapes when the seam runs out, say scientists working with industry.

But they admit that there are risks and costs, and urge communities and miners to work together from the start to understand and minimize them.

“There’s a lot of mitigative measures you can take when you’re designing a mine,” said Guy Gilron, a biologist and toxicologist who has worked on many mine projects, including some proposed for Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.

Gord McKenna, a Calgary-based geotechnical engineer, said mines can become attractive and useful landscapes — as long as people don’t expect them to look the same as they did before.

“We can make landscapes that are pretty good,” he said. “It’s not always put back to the same land uses. (But) if we don’t over-promise, I think mines can meet what they set out to do.”

The United Conservative government is looking to increase surface coal mining on the foothills and summits of the Rocky Mountains. Plans from several companies covering tens of thousands of hectares have caused widespread concern over potential contamination and destruction of much-loved landscapes.

Gilron said modern mines are designed to reduce the release of contaminants such as selenium, which is toxic in excess and is released as it oxidizes from waste rock. Gilron said less is released if that rock is covered.

“If you cover that waste rock with water or with backfill — the engineers use a special paste to cement it back in place — you reduce the amount of selenium that goes into water.”

Bacteria in the water then reduce the selenium to a form that plants and animals can’t absorb, Gilron said.

He points to at least six examples of where so-called end-pit lakes have been used successfully to bring selenium well below dangerous levels. Sphinx Lake, near Hinton, Alta., is an example of an artificial lake used to treat selenium, he said.

Golder Associates, an international environmental consultancy, published a 2020 report on selenium reduction technology in 30 locations across North America.

“Various industry sectors are investing in selenium treatment technology and making progress in performance,” it said. “Some technologies have multiple successful full-scale installations.”

The report includes caveats.

“Selenium treatment technologies have not reached full maturity and should still be regarded as developmental,” it says.

It also suggests that Canadian coal mines that contain high levels of selenium are “challenging” to mitigate.

Gilron said it can be done.

“You don’t see it as much of an issue in new mines where they’ve had a chance to engineer and treat waste rock in a way to avoid the selenium getting into water bodies.”

McKenna said that part of the problem in reclamation is that mining companies are pressured during the regulatory process to promise more than they can actually deliver.

“Right now, the mines promise the world — and the regulators require them to promise the world — to get their first permit. They promise what is possible rather than what is deliverable.”

It’s crucial to make a distinction between restoration and reclamation, he said.

“You can never put all the dirt back in the hole again.

“We ought not to be promising restoration. We ought to be promising pretty good reclamation.”

People also need to understand that a reclaimed coal mine will have to be monitored for many decades to ensure it’s stable and behaving as desired.

“To think we’re going to build these landscapes (that) cover many square kilometres, we’re going to get that perfect the first time and after 10, 20 years we can walk away, kind of makes no sense. We’re going to manage these lands for a long, long time.”

McKenna said the key to building a mine that can be satisfactorily reclaimed is consultation with communities and other users right from the start.

“They’re part of the decision-making, which is tough for mines to give up. We’ve got to stop building these landscapes for the local people and start building them with the local people.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2021.

— Follow at @row 1960 on Twitter

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

coal mine

Just Posted

Alberta premier Jason Kenney announced the province's reopening plan late last month and moved into Stage 1 of that plan Tuesday. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Travel prizes added to Alberta’s vaccine lottery

More than 40 travel rewards available for those who are fully vaccinated

(Advocate file photo).
Red Deer voters can choose their voting station for fall municipal election

The rules are changing to increase accessibility while improving safety

Three Hills RCMP recovered stolen copper wire during recent investigation near Kneehill. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Central Alberta man causes extensive damage at Rocky Mountian House car dealership

A Central Alberta man caused more than $200,000 in damage at Edward’s… Continue reading

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
LeBlanc signals some cautious easing of pandemic travel restrictions coming soon

Government has already said it will relax quarantine protocols in early July

This satellite photo provided by Planet Labs Inc. shows the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in Guangdong province, China on May 8, 2021. The Chinese nuclear power plant near Hong Kong had five broken fuel rods in a reactor but no radioactivity leaked, the government said Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in its first confirmation of the incident that prompted concern over the facility’s safety. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
China says nuclear fuel rods damaged, no radiation leak

China Atomic Energy Authority reported the reactor’s ‘containment integrity is maintained’

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Canada’s Cyle Larin (17) scores past Haiti’s Josue Duverger, bottom left, during the second half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Bridgeview, Ill. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
Canada, Panama, El Salvador advance in World Cup qualifying

Top three nations in the regional finals advance to 32-nation field for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar

Dragon’s Den cast member Arlene Dickinson poses on the red carpet at the 24th Annual Gemini Awards in Calgary on November 14, 2009.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry Macdougal
Entrepreneur Arlene Dickinson’s memoir being developed into scripted TV series

Dramatizing the battle to do business ‘ethically and honestly’

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta (44) celebrates with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) after Rutta scored against the New York Islanders during the third period in Game 2 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Kucherov shines, Lightning beat Islanders 4-2 in Game 2

Lightning 4 Islanders 2 (Series tied 2-2) TAMPA, Fla. — Brayden Point… Continue reading

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) shoots as Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton (24) defends during the fourth quarter of Game 5 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Durant’s sensational performance sends Nets to 3-2 lead

Nets 114 Bucks 108 (Brooklyn leads series 3-2) NEW YORK (AP) —… Continue reading

New York Yankees starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery throws to a Toronto Blue Jays batter during the first inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Frazier snaps tie, Yankees come back to beat Blue Jays 6-5

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Clint Frazier snapped an eighth-inning tie with a pinch-hit… Continue reading

The Pornhub website is shown on a computer screen in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Pornhub says it has removed all content uploaded by non-verified users. The sex website faced accusations it hosted illegal content. The company, which is owned by Montreal-based Mindgeek, says it has suspended all previously uploaded content that was not created by one of its content partners or members of its Model Program. THE CANADIAN PRESS
International women’s rights advocates call on Canada to hold Pornhub to account

Jeanette Westbrook says being sexually abused as a child will haunt her… Continue reading

Most Read