‘Stories the numbers tell’: Critics ask why Alberta sat on coal contamination data

‘Stories the numbers tell’: Critics ask why Alberta sat on coal contamination data

EDMONTON — Critics are asking why Alberta Environment has been sitting on years worth of data about pollution from coal mines while the government considers a dramatic expansion of the industry.

“It raises some important questions about our ability to trust what’s going on,” said New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt. “The fact (Alberta Environment) hasn’t reported publicly is extremely concerning.”

On Monday, The Canadian Press reported on analysis of coal mine contamination in the Gregg and McLeod Rivers and Luscar Creek near Jasper, Alta., dating back to the 1990s. It found toxic levels of selenium many times over the amount considered safe for aquatic life.

The Gregg and Luscar Creek mines closed in the early 2000s. Selenium levels from both declined,at best, only gradually over more than 15 years of remediation.

In the case of the Cheviot mine on the McLeod River, levels gradually grew between 2005 and 2017. The operation closed last June.

The data also showsthe provincial government knew about the levels for at least 15 years and did not report anything after 2006. The information was available in raw form, but Schmidt said it isn’tenough to simply collect information.

“There are numbers and then there are the numbers that the stories tell. That’s the piece that’s missing.”

The New Democrats were in power for four of those years. Schmidt said sitting on the information is worse now because Alberta is going through a wrenching debate over the present government’s plans to expand the industry by opening up the Rocky Mountains to open-pit, mountaintop coal mines — an option that did not exist under the NDP.

“This data’s relevance is more important now,” he said.

Alberta Environment has pointed out that the raw data has always been public. Spokesman John Muir promised the province would soon release its own report on water downstream of coal mines.

Lack of action shows that monitoring often promised by industry and government as new projects are considered isn’t enough, said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

“On those rivers we’re seeing that monitoring hasn’t been enough to actually control selenium. We just continue to promise monitoring. We didn’t see action to bring those selenium numbers down.”

A 2006 provincial report found that selenium was already harming fish. As well, a 2005 published study co-authored by provincial scientists found rainbow trout were suffering facial and skeletal deformities from selenium.

The province has recently sold about 1.4 million hectares of coal exploration leases. Hundreds of drill sites and kilometres of new roads have already been permitted on previously unmined mountainsides. One new coal mine, Benga Mining’s Grassy Mountain project in the Crowsnest Pass in southwestern Alberta, is before a joint federal-provincial review.

The information on the old coal mines shows what’s at issue for new ones, said Morrison.

“Those stakes are really high. (Selenium release) has been happening other places and they have not been able to get the selenium under control.”

Benga says a new method should allow the mine to treat 99 per cent of its selenium. As well, the mine has been designed to minimize contact between water and selenium-bearing rocks, the company says.

Morrison said that treatment is still unproven. She said if its efficiency falls to even 90 per cent, selenium levels in nearby streams will cross thresholds safe for aquatic life.

Morrison said her group produced expert testimony at the Benga hearings suggesting the company doesn’t have a convincing long-term plan for controlling selenium long into the future.

“We have not seen that technology work at the scale that we’ll need it to or with the amount of selenium we’re likely to see.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2021

— Follow @row1960 on Twitter

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

coal mine

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

Just Posted

Erika Fetterly, owner of EFP Studios, recently launched the Let Them Have A Voice campaign. (Contributed photo)
Central Alberta photographer’s campaign aims to give youths a voice

An Innisfail photographer is giving a platform to young central Albertans so… Continue reading

Chopped Canada-winning chef Pete Sok is trying to focus on the future as he reopens Boulevard Restaurant and Lounge in the Holiday Inn on Gasoline Alley during the pandemic. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer’s celebrity chef looks past the pandemic with new restaurant opportunity

Pete Sok is reopening Boulevard Restaurant — and betting on the future

The Red Deer Rebels hosted the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first game of the shortened 2020-21 season on Friday. The two teams faced off again in Medicine Hat Saturday (Photo by Rob Wallator/ Red Deer Rebels)
Red Deer Rebels fall to Medicine Hat Tigers on Saturday

Tigers 7 Rebels 2 The Red Deer Rebels have lost two straight… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer reports 25th COVID-19 death

415 new cases identified provincially Saturday

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped save a missing pet recently. The two dogs have more than 80,000 followers on Twitter. (Contributed photo)
WATCH: Red Deer science dogs help save lost pet

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped rescue a missing pet… Continue reading

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020. It’s budget day in the province, and Kenney’s United Conservative government is promising more help in the fight against COVID, but more red ink on the bottom line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta Premier slams vandalism after slur painted on MLA’s office window

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is condemning alleged vandalism at the… Continue reading

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Machin waits to appear at the Standing Committee on Finance on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. Executives who engage in so-called "vaccine tourism" show both an ethical disregard for those less fortunate and a surprising lack of business acumen, experts argue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine tourism is both unethical and bad for business, experts say

Executives who engage in so-called “vaccine tourism” show both an ethical disregard… Continue reading

Edmonton Oilers' Jesse Puljujarvi (13) and Toronto Maple Leafs' Justin Holl (3) battle in front as goalie Jack Campbell (36) makes the save during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, February 27, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
No Matthews, no problem: Minus NHL goal leader, Maple Leafs blank Oilers 4-0

Leafs 4 Oilers 0 EDMONTON — The Maple Leafs knew even with… Continue reading

Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Pablo Rodriguez rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Gummed-up bills in House of Commons: harbinger of a federal election?

OTTAWA — All federal party leaders maintain they don’t want an election… Continue reading

The Pornhub website is shown on a computer screen in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Pornhub policies reveal legal gaps and lack of enforcement around exploitive videos

OTTAWA — Serena Fleites was in seventh grade when a sexually explicit… Continue reading

Sean Hoskin stands on a neighbourhood street in Halifax on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Hoskin was diagnosed with COVID-19 almost a year ago with symptoms that still persist. Some provinces have established programs to deal with long-term sufferers but Atlantic Canada, with relatively low numbers of patients, has yet to provide a resource to assist them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
On East Coast, exhausted COVID-19 ‘long haulers’ hope specialized clinics will emerge

HALIFAX — On evenings when Sean Hoskin collapses into bed, heart pounding… Continue reading

Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray (30) stands in his crease as Calgary Flames left wing Andrew Mangiapane (88), left to right, defenceman Rasmus Andersson (4), Matthew Tkachuk (19), Mikael Backlund (11) and Mark Giordano (5) celebrate a goal during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Calgary Flames beat Ottawa 6-3 to end Senators’ three-game win streak

Flames 6 Senators 3 OTTAWA — The Calgary Flames used a balanced… Continue reading

Crosses are displayed in memory of the elderly who died from COVID-19 at the Camilla Care Community facility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on November 19, 2020. The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection is likely to be much higher than recorded because of death certificates don't always list the virus as the cause of a fatality, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Death certificates don’t accurately reflect the toll of the pandemic, experts say

The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection… Continue reading

Most Read