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

The new Civic Memorial Park will incorporate pieces of the 80-year-old arena it replaces. (Artists rendering)
Pieces of Civic Arena reclaimed for new Vernon park

City centre space to incorporate wood from the historic arena

Fruit farmers in the Okanagan and Creston valleys are in desperate need of cherry harvesters amid COVID-19 work shortages. (Photo: Unsplash/Abigail Miller)
‘Desperate’ need for workers at Okanagan cherry farms

Fruit farmers are worried they’ll have to abandon crops due to COVID-19 work shortages

A motorycle crash has been reported on Westside Road. (Google Maps)
UPDATE: Westside Road reopened following motorcycle crash near Vernon

AIM Roads advises drivers to expect delays due to congestion

Dereck Donald Sears. (Contributed/Crimestoppers)
Murder charge laid in relation to suspicious Kelowna death

Dereck Donald Sears is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Darren Middleton

An Armstrong family that lost their home to a fire on Wednesday still hasn’t found their cat as of Friday, June 18, 2021. (Facebook photo)
Family cat still missing, days after fire destroys Armstrong home

There were no injuries from Wednesday’s blaze, but two days later there’s still no sign of the white feline

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

New research suggests wolves can be steered away from the endangered caribou herds they prey on by making the man-made trails they use to hunt harder to move along. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Culling cutlines, not B.C. wolves, key to preserving caribou herds: researcher

The government has turned to killing hundreds of wolves in an effort to keep caribou around

Gary Abbott (left) and Louis De Jaeger were two of the organizers for the 2014 Spirit of the People Powwow in Chilliwack. Monday, June 21, 2021 is Indigenous Peoples Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of June 20 to 26

Indigenous Peoples Day, Take Your Dog to Work Day, Onion Rings Day all coming up this week

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Gwen Spencer Hethey with her uncle and mentor Major Frederick Richardson. (Courtesy of Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame)
‘She was a killer’: The B.C. woman who pioneered female sharpshooting

Gwen Spencer Hethey made military men ‘look like turkeys’ says her son

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

Rita Coolidge played the main stage at Vancouver Island Musicfest in 2017. (Black Press file photo)
This year’s Vancouver Island MusicFest to virtually showcase beauty of Comox Valley

Returning July 9 through 11 with more than 25 hours of music performances

British Columbia’s premier says he’s received a second dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. (Twitter/John Horgan)
B.C. premier gets 2nd dose of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

John Horgan shared a photo of himself on social media Friday afternoon holding a completed vaccination card

A lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS
No winning ticket sold for Friday’s $70 million Lotto Max jackpot

The huge jackpot has remained unclaimed for several weeks now

Most Read