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

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

There are risks and costs, and these scientists urge communities and miners to work together

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.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Albertacoal mine

Just Posted

Department of Oceans and Fisheries has announced as of July 19 chinook salmon is not to be fished in certain areas in BC tidal waters until July. Spring chinook salmon are seen swimming. (Photo courtesy Michael Humling, US Fish & Wildlife Service)
Chinook Salmon limits set to zero in some BC tidal waters

DFO implement restrictions to protect Chinook Salmon

Richard Green and Alex Campbell stand in solemn reflection of the survivors and victims of the residential school system on May 30, in Prince Rupert National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21 is a time to reflect on the sacrifices and honour the contributions made by First Nations, Inuit and Metis of Canada. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Prince Rupert Reflecting on National Indigenous Peoples Day

June 21 is to celebrate the contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Metis to Canada’s culture

Mark Perry in concert at the old Driftwood School (Marty Clemens photo)
Mark Perry releases new single ahead of Northwest album.

“Golden Spruce” tells the story of a forester who cut down an old-growth Sitka Spruce on Haida Gwaii

Five rehabilitated grizzly bears were released this month into the Bella Coola area. The Northern Lights Wildlife Society will also be delivering 36 black bears to areas across the province where they were previously found. “They’re ready to go and they’re already trying to get out,” says Angelika Langen. “We feel good when we can make that possible and they don’t have to stay behind fences for the rest of their lives.” (Northern Lights Wildlife Society Facebook photo)
Suspected methamphetamine and scale seized by police. (Terrace RCMP photo)
Terrace RCMP seize guns, ammo, suspected narcotics

Man released after court appearance

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

FILE – Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Feds to issue update on border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents

Border with U.S. to remain closed to most until at least July 21

A portion of the George Road wildfire burns near Lytton, B.C. in this Friday, June 18, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Blaze near Lytton spread across steep terrain, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire began Wednesday and is suspected to be human-caused, but remains under investigation

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Most Read