Alberta’s massive toxic coal mine spill heading to N.W.T. by CBC News, November 17, 2013
The Northwest Territories’ Environment Minister, Michael Miltenberger, says toxins from a massive coal mine spill in Alberta are making their way north. On Oct. 31, Sherritt International’s Obed Mountain coal mine spilled about 1 billion litres of contaminated water into the Athabasca River. The mine is no longer operating. The spill happened when a retaining wall collapsed, unleashing the equivalent of about 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools of contaminated water. The Alberta government says the contaminated water is now making its way through the Athabasca River and the Peace River. It should reach the Slave River and Great Slave Lake close to the beginning of December. MIltenberger says he wasn’t informed of the spill of toxic water until Nov. 4, four days after it happened.
“We are going to keep doing monitoring as it makes its way north,” Miltenberger said. “This is the first coal mine spill of this magnitude. A huge amount of water filled with these waste substances… In my recollection, this is the first of this type of catastrophic failure.” According to Environment Canada, the water being stored at the mine contained potentially damaging compounds, including a suspected carcinogen known to cause tumours in laboratory animals. There’s also arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and manganese found at the disposal site. The Alberta government says the contaminated water will dilute and be safe once it reaches the Slave River in the N.W.T. Miltenberger says his department will continue to test the water for contaminants as it moves downstream. … The Alberta government says it’s doing comprehensive testing for heavy metals on clay, mud, shale and coal particles moving through the Athabasca River. Alberta Health maintains there are no immediate health concerns. Fort Smith resident Francois Paulette says that’s far from the truth. “They’ve been saying that for 40 years,” Paulette says. “The environmental people are saying this is a highly toxic contaminant in the water. We’ve been instructed that people shouldn’t be taking water from the river in that week.” The Alberta government says it’s hoping to share the test results from the affected areas in the Athabasca River early next week. [Emphasis added]
Subject: Water testing results please
Date: Sat, 16 Nov 2013 22:55:20 -0700 (MST)
Dear Ms. Potter,
We were told that the water testing results of the Obed mine disaster would be available on November 2, 2013.
I am afraid I haven’t heard anything from the government.
Will we have to have the federal government in to do the testing to find out what is in the Athabasca River as a result of the negligent performance by the government of Alberta?
Will we have to ask for independent scientists to test the water to find out the truth?
Subject: contamination of the Athabasca River by the Obed mine spill of an entire containment pond –request for a public inquiry
Date: Sat, 16 Nov 2013 22:12:34 -0700 (MST)
Dear Ms. Shea,
No doubt you have heard about the spill of 1 billion litres of coal tailings from a containment pond that suffered a catastrophic event.
Hopefully you have been advised of the situation by now by the lackluster crew of Tory politicians we have hired in Alberta who told the public that we were not to worry, that this was just sediment.
What the Alberta Government, the AER and Sherritt International failed to disclose to the naive public (such as stay at home mummies like myself) was that in that sediment we have a number of toxic chemicals and that these pose a significant hazard.
Since most of us do not know anything about tailings from coal mining we believed the spin of the Synergy three (GOVERNMENT, AER, SHERRITT INTERNATIONAL).
While I was skeptical I thought maybe it was possible that all there was in that pond was dirt.
Then I read up on coal tailings and then the reports came out of the chemicals in the Athabasca River that are now making their way to other parts of Canada and I realize I have been scammed yet again.
I do believe your department is responsible for the water in the Athabasca River and the fish at least that live there.
I want a public inquiry done into the mess that is now evident to me as a major cover-up by the Synergy three.
I want to know how a billion liters of basically very poisonous coal tailings enters into a fresh water source for Albertans and these folks tell us not to worry–that the municipal water systems are designed to remove arsenic and the like from the water.
I want significant fines and disciplinary action.
You may not know this but in Alberta –companies are not punished for contaminating the environment. Citizens just have to work in polluted situations. …
In Alberta, people are afraid to speak out because of social ostracism, loss of jobs and other fun ways of being treated by the community, employers and government at all levels.
None of this sort of anti-democratic behavior by any of these entities is acceptable.
We are to prosecute polluters. It has to be polluter pay not the citizens who pay. Folks in governments or government agencies— who fail to hold the polluters accountable must go to jail as well. No one is above the laws of the land–not even the folks at the AER–who have been made above the laws of the land by the CAPP party in power.
It is a failure of the role of government to permit corporations to operate in this rogue fashion.
Will you at least do something by ensuring a public inquiry into this major environmental disaster?
Opposition politicians raise questions about government’s handling of coal waste water spill that released dangerous chemicals by Marty Klinkenberg, November 14, 2013, Edmonton Journal
The coal mine pond that leaked into the Athabasca River on Oct. 31 contained a range of potentially damaging compounds, including a suspected carcinogen called phenathrene. According to the National Pollution Release Inventory, a database kept by Environment Canada, the impoundment at Sherritt International’s Obed Mountain mine also contained arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and manganese. Found in contaminated water and air, phenathrene is one of a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are known to cause tumours in laboratory animals. Alberta Environment has refused to release information about the contents of the plume of waste water that stretches more than 100 kilometres down the Athabasca River, other than to say it contained high levels of suspended solids, including such things as clay, mud, shale and coal particles.
Department officials maintain the leak poses no health concerns, but have advised communities downstream not to draw water from the river. Results of tests disclosed Wednesday by Alberta’s chief medical officer show levels of mercury nine times higher than usual and concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons four times above allowed standards for drinking water. “These are compounds that are naturally contained within coal, but it is not natural for them to be washed into a river in such a large amount,” said Ramsey Hart, the Canada program co-ordinator with Mining Watch Canada, an Ottawa-based environmental organization that posted a list of the compounds in the storage facility on its website late Thursday. “I have been shocked and appalled as I have read statements from Alberta’s government about what was contained within the pond. It seems to be an attempt to dramatically minimize the effects of the residue that was released.” … “It would have been an environmental concern even if the leaked was only made up entirely of organic matter,” Hart said. “Given that we know that there are heavy metals and PAHs’ in the tailings, it’s a major environmental disaster.”
Opposition critics lined up to blast government on Thursday for not being forthcoming about the contents of the holding pond or the possibility of extensive environmental damage. Alberta Environment spokeswoman Jessica Potter said she expected summary results of water testing to be released in conjunction with Alberta Health Services by the end of the week. The department has acknowledged habitat and fisheries have been damaged but have said it won’t be clear for months how much damage occurred. Environment Minister Diana McQueen on Wednesday maintained that the leak poses no health risk, but said the results of test would remain confidential for now. “I think there is a major credibility issue,” Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said. “Alberta’s chief public health officer is concerned about the safety of drinking water and the Minister of Environment is saying there is no problem. I am going to hedge my bets in favour of the chief health officer.”
NDP critic Rachel Notley took government to task for being slow to release information. “It makes my head explode,” Notley said, adding that government’s approach contradicts a bill it tabled last month calling for a new oilsands’ agency that is arm’s length from government. “They are about to bring in legislation about monitoring and transparency at the same time they are refusing to release the information they have.” [Emphasis added]
Time for Alberta Environment to come clean about environmental accidents by Paula Simons, November 14, 2013, Edmonton Journal
Mercury levels nine times higher than normal. Levels of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons four times the allowed standard for Canadian drinking water. Those are the kinds of disturbing test results Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, is seeing as he monitors a huge plume of coal mine waste water currently oozing down the Athabasca River. “Our overriding concern is the safety of the drinking water,” says Talbot. “We’re advising people, ‘Don’t draw water as the plume is going by.’ ”
On Oct. 31, an estimated one billion litres of waste water leaked out of a containment pit at the old Obed Mountain coal mine, some 30 kilometres east of Hinton. The mine, owned by Sherritt International, has been non-operational since 2012. The sediment suspension is now more than 100 km long, and moving at a pace of just under five kilometres per hour. By Wednesday, it was 10 km past the town of Athabasca, on its inexorable way toward Wood Buffalo National Park. Alberta Environment says nothing can be done to clean it up, or stop its progress.
Environment Minister Diana McQueen says her department has been conducting regular tests of the water. But McQueen says the ministry intends to keep all the results confidential, at least for now. “They will be made public after the investigation is over.” Still, McQueen insists people shouldn’t worry. “There are no public health concerns with the water,” says McQueen. “Albertans can feel very confident that we are on top of this situation. We have very strict environmental standards in this province, and they’re all being followed.”
Talbot, thank goodness, is less coy about the data. The province’s chief public health official was notified of the spill on the afternoon of Friday, Nov 1. While about the 30 per cent of the plume is made up of relatively inert solids, including coal particulates, and clay, shale and sandstone deposits, Talbot also asked Alberta Environment to test the waste water for heavy metals, including mercury, lead and selenium, as well as potential carcinogens, including benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Talbot says water in the immediate vicinity of the plume had high levels of some of those pollutants. The Canadian drinking water standard for benzo (a) pyrene, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and suspected carcinogen, which has been linked to elevated rates of skin cancers and reproductive disorders, is 0.01 micrograms per litre. According to Talbot’s data, at peak, the river water near the plume had levels of benzo (a) pyrene that were approximately four times that of the allowable drinking water standard.
Mercury levels in the water near the plume, according to the data, were nine times higher than baseline measures for the river. However, Talbot stresses that as high as the mercury levels were, they were still within allowable limits for human consumption. The good news, he says, is that water treatment plants were given enough notice by Alberta Health that none actually drew any of the polluted water from the river. As well, he says, as the mass of waste flows down river, the water behind has largely returned to normal. For example, Talbot’s test results show that levels of benzo (a) pyrene in the water behind the plume are now at or below the Canadian drinking water standard. Over the winter, Talbot says, the hydrocarbons in the river should dissipate or be broken down naturally by bacteria. He is more concerned about the long-term effects of heavy metals, such as mercury, which stay in the environment. In the spring, Talbot says the province will need to test the mercury levels of fish in the Athabasca, to determine a safe level of human consumption. Talbot’s straightforward analysis is both refreshing and reassuring. And it just underlines how clumsily the Environment Department, with its secrecy and evasion, has handled this file.
Alberta desperately needs to burnish its environmental reputation on the international stage. So why does our government persist in handling environmental accidents in this amateurish, defensive way? If we want a social licence to develop our carbon resources, from coal to oilsands, we have to start managing environmental crises professionally and transparently, giving the public and the world accurate information, instead of offering empty, even false, assurances that everything is just fine. With luck, the Athabasca River ecosystem will eventually recover from this murky mess. Alberta’s reputation for environmental stewardship? That may be a different story. [Emphasis added]