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

Colin Davidson won $100K on a Set for Life scratch ticket in Sooke. (BCLC photo)
Sooke man does ‘happy dance’ after scratching a $100,000 Set for Life win

Colin Davidson plans to renovate his home and invest in his daughter’s education

Law Enforcement Torch Run in support of Special Olympics B.C. kicks off with a run at Swan Lake on June 6. The virtual fundraiser runs until June 20. (Saanich Police/Twitter)
Torch run seeks to scorch previous fundraiser, targets $75,000 for Special Olympics

Global movement shoots for 40,000 km in honour of the 40th anniversary

West Shore RCMP K9 Halla. (Black Press Media file photo)
Sound of RCMP dog enough to stop suspects in Oak Bay

West Shore RCMP K9 unit called in, didn’t get to chase

Improving safety at Keating Cross Road and the Pat Bay Highway is the goal of the flyover project currently in the works. The province aims to reveal the final cost and design this fall. (Screencap/Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)
Final budget, design of Keating flyover in Central Saanich still in the works

Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure says information coming by this fall

UVic Department of Anthropology chair and professor, April Nowell, at home with a copy of her new book, Growing Up In the Ice Age. (Courtesy of April Nowell)
New book by University of Victoria professor explores lives of Ice Age children

April Nowell spent two decades researching archaeological evidence of children, teens

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

Cowichan Tribes man Adrian Sylvester is worried that he was targetted by a trailer hitch thrown from a vehicle. (Facebook photo)
Cowichan Tribes man worried he was target of trailer hitch

Adrian Sylvester says no one has reported a missing hitch after one nearly hit him

Graeme Roberts, who was mayor of Nanaimo from 1984-86, died this month at age 89. (Photo courtesy Nanaimo Community Archives)
City of Nanaimo flags at half-mast as former mayor Graeme Roberts dies at 89

‘Giant-killer’ beat out Frank Ney in mayoral election in 1984

CVSAR search the Puntledge River following a report of an abandoned kayak. Photo, CVSAR Facebook page
Comox Valley Search and Rescue spends four hours searching for no one

Overturned kayak a reminder for public to contact officials if they have to abandon a watercraft

A worker, at left, tends to a customer at a cosmetics shop amid the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Half of cosmetics sold in Canada, U.S. contain toxic chemicals: study

Researchers tested more than 230 commonly used cosmetics and found that 56% of foundations and eye products, 48% of lip products and 47% of mascaras contained high levels of fluorine

White Rock’s Marine Drive has been converted to one-way traffic to allow more patio space for waterfront restaurants. (Peace Arch News)
Province promotes permanent pub patios in B.C. post-pandemic plan

More than 2,000 temporary expansions from COVID-19 rules

Lake City Secondary School Williams Lake campus students Ethan Reid, from left, Brenden Higgins, Ty Oviatt, Kaleb Alphonse, Nathan Kendrick and Landon Brink with RCMP officers Const. Nicoll and Const. Stancec. (Photo submitted)
RCMP thank 6 teens for helping prevent forest fire in Williams Lake

The students came across fire in a wooded area and used the water they had to try and extinguish the flames

Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre has embarked on a fundraising campaign, seeking to raise $1 million for establishment of an independent urban Indigenous school. Pictured here, Tsawalk Learning Centre students at an Orange Shirt Day event in September. (Submitted photo)
Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre looks to raise $1 million for urban Indigenous school

Centre says independent school would be first of its kind in B.C.

There is an emergency shelter near the Golden Ears peaks. (Facebook/Special to The News)
Hiker fogged in on Golden Ears, spends 2 nights

Talon Helicopters, Ridge Meadows Search and Rescue bring him home Monday

Most Read