MAC: Mines and Communities

Canada: Massive coal mine leak damaged fisheries, habitat

Published by MAC on 2013-11-09
Source: Edmonton Journal, Ecowatch, Global News

As if the Albertan environment wasn't suffering enough from tar sands, it has suffered what may be the largest coal slurry spill in its history when a dam failed at the Obed Mountain coal mine. Around 1 billion litres of waste water has contaminated at least 25 kilometers of the Athabasca river.

Massive coal mine leak damaged fisheries, habitat

Alberta Environment admits sediment poses risk to some species

By Marty Kinkenberg and Sheila Pratt

Edmonton Journal

8 November 2013

EDMONTON - Likely the largest spill of its kind in Canadian history, the massive leak of coal slurry into the Athabasca River near Hinton has caused damage to habitat and poses a risk to certain fish species.

Alberta Environment Thursday acknowledged the one-billion-litre spill has affected fish habitat. Meanwhile, Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologists and conservation staff are inspecting a 25-kilometre stretch from the point of the release into Apetowun Creek to the Athabasca River, a breeding area for Alberta's only strain of native rainbow trout.

Federal officials have met with managers at Sherritt International to discuss cleanup and mitigation efforts. A spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans said the investigation is expected to take several months.

"The sediment release did result in impacts to the fisheries and habitats," Jessica Potter, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment, said Thursday.

"Our fisheries biologists have done a preliminary inspection, but a full assessment won't be possible until spring because winter weather is settling in. A larger assessment is needed to determine the full scope and extent of impacts."

The sediment release affected the Apetowun/Plante Drainage and Athabasca Rivers, Potter said, adding, "These are trout-producing waterways."

Provincial records show that bull trout, rainbow trout, brook trout and other species have been found in Apetowun Creek and other tributaries affected by the spill. The bull trout is designated as a species at risk in Canada, and in recent years biologists have sought protection from the province for the native strain of rainbow trout.

Alberta Environment officials are working with the company to determine how mine waste water full of clay, coal dust, dirt, sandstone and shale escaped from a containment pond at the Obed Mountain coal mine site on Oct. 31. Alberta Environment officials will not confirm if other contaminants were in the storage facility.

A Sheritt spokeswoman said no solvents are used in the water management process at the Obed mine. The company uses flocculents, a thickening agent, Paula Myson said.

The company is unable to provide the list of chemicals it uses as recorded on the Material Safety Data Sheet filed with Alberta Environment, she added.

Earlier this week, Alberta Environment began testing the Athabasca River to determine if heavy metals and cancer-contributing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons had been introduced by the leak.

The department said samples taken in the spill's immediate wake posed no health risk, but then later warned communities downstream not to draw water from the Athabasca River. Farmers were likewise advised not to allow livestock to drink.

Late Friday, Alberta Environment spokeswoman Nikki Booth said testing continues on a daily basis, with results likely available next week.

"We are working with AHS on the water test results," Booth, noting the department is still warning people not to use water from the river.

Two other waste water ponds on the mine site are not leaking and there is no concern about the integrity of those impoundments, she added.

The U.S.-based environment group, Waterkeepers Alliance, said the Obed leak, the equivalent of about 264 million gallons, would rank as the second-largest coal slurry spill in American history. The largest occurred in 2000, when 309 million gallons tainted a river in Kentucky, said Donna Lisenby of the Waterkeepers Alliance's coal section in the U.S.

The Obed leak also far surpasses a 1972 slurry spill of 132 million gallons in West Virginia which is considered the second biggest in U.S. history, Lisenby added. The national U.S. database, called the Coal Impoundment Location and Information System, is run by industry partners and government agencies. Lisenby said she was unable to find a similar Canadian database, but given its size and the U.S. comparisons, the Oct. 31 spill is likely the biggest in Canadian history, she said.

A spokesman for Alberta's Energy Regulator said the agency keeps records of Alberta spills, but not by volume. For that reason, Bob Curran said he could not identify Alberta's largest spills.

In the U.S., companies are required to file a Material Safety Data Sheet that lists chemicals used in the mining process, Lisenby said in a telephone call from Boone, N.C.

"Each coal mine is unique" in the process it uses, she said.

"It can be as simple as using just water but in modern times more chemicals are used - coagulants, solvents that might include heavy metals," Lisenby said. "It's critical that those water tests are made public.

"Folks downstream need to know."

At mid-afternoon Friday, Booth said a murky ribbon of pollution 113 km long was drifting with the current in the Athabasca River. The head of the plume was approximately 45 km north of Smith, while the tail was 15 km upstream of the Highway 33 Bridge at Fort Assiniboine.

Carl Hunt, a fisheries biologist for the province for 33 years, said Wednesday that he suspected significant damage had occurred in Apetowun Creek and other tributaries of the Athabasca. Among other things, sediment can coat the bottom and kill invertebrates upon which trout and other species feed.

"This sediment spill will hopefully raise public awareness," said Hunt, who is now retired.

A biologist with Trout Unlimited Canada, Brian Meagher petitioned then environment minister Frank Oberle in 2010 for protection for Alberta's lone native strain of rainbow trout. Nothing ever became of the request.

"If a spawning stream was affected by this spill it could definitely be a major issue," Meagher said.


What is Slurry?

Slurry is waste water that is derived when raw coal is washed after being pulled from the ground. When coal is excavated, it comes with copious amounts of dirt, mud and rocks attached. They are removed with water, and solvents and chemicals called flocculents can also be used.

Spill Chronology

Oct. 31: Sherritt International reports a massive leak from a containment pond at its remediated Obed Mountain coal mine site in west-central Alberta northeast of Hinton. A plume of coal dust, sand, dirt, shale and other materials pours into Apetowun Creek and travels through a watershed for 25 km before reaching the Athabasca River.

Nov. 4: Alberta Environment warns 10 communities downstream of the 1-billion-litre spill not to draw water from the Athabasca River. Farmers are also advised not to allow livestock to drink the water.

Nov. 5: Fisheries & Oceans Canada announces it is investigating potential violations under the Fisheries Act; Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen says no wildlife or habitats have been harmed.

Nov. 7: Alberta Environment acknowledges damage has occurred to habitat and fisheries.

Nov. 8: Alberta Environment announces the ban on drawing water continues; as of midday Friday the plume of pollutants stretches 113 km down the river.

Did Canada Just Have the Largest Coal Slurry Spill in Its History?

Donna Lisenby


8 November 2013

A scary thing happened on Halloween near Hinton, Alberta. Canada had what may be the largest coal slurry spill in its history when a dam failed at the Obed Mountain coal mine and 264 million gallons (1 billion litres) of waste water contaminated at least 25 kilometers of the Athabasca river. Ten municipalities located downstream of the spill were warned not to withdraw raw drinking water from the Athabasca river until it was deemed safe. Residents were also warned not to let their animals drink water from the river.

The federal government dispatched officials from Environment Canada as well as Fisheries and Oceans Canada to investigate whether violations of the Canadian Fisheries Act occurred as a result of the massive dam failure and subsequent contamination of the Athabasca River. Critics are beginning to lash out at the government response. Rachel Notley, a Legislative Assembly representative and lawyer wants to know why it took five days for the Alberta provincial government to issue warnings to communities downstream. Others are concerned about conflicting government statements that the spill was relatively harmless. They say if the spill was harmless, why were they warned not to use the Athabasca River as a source of drinking water for municipalities and livestock?

"For the communities living downstream with years of toxic waste, this coal slurry spill is adding to the cumulative effects they are left to deal with," said Jesse Cardinal, coordinator for the Keepers of the Athabasca. "Fort Chipewywan recently got a new water treatment system which is to be one of the best in North America, and even still, after hearing of this coal spill, are once again, starting to fear drinking the water."

Two days after the spill, the Alberta Environment spokesperson Robyn Cochrane said in this Global News Canada interview, "Initial water samples are currently being analyzed by independent labs and will be reviewed by Alberta Health Services and Environment and Sustainable Resource Development staff. Once we have these results, we will make them public."

Water test results were expected on Nov. 3. To date, Alberta Environment still has not made any water test results public. If the preliminary water results "indicate that the water is not health-hazardous" as Environment Alberta spokesperson Jessica Potter said in this news story, why not release them? What are they hiding? And more importantly, why have they reneged on their promise to make the water test results public?

"If, as the vague Alberta Government statements claim, the tailings are ‘harmless to health' why are they unwilling to share them with their citizen shareholders. If they are only ‘coal dust' then show us the data." said Harvey Scott, director of the Keepers of the Athabasca.

"We are concerned that the tailings ponds may contain such things as high concentrations of selenium which can be very toxic for native fish reproduction. The stream that transferred the pond effluent to the Athabasca is a known fishery for several important native species. Will its reproductive capacity be seriously affected? Settling pond flocculants can be deleterious to fish reproduction - has that been assessed? Indigenous peoples and other Canadians depend upon these fisheries to provide them partial livelihoods and recreational fishing. How will this tailings release affect that? The Keepers of the Athabasca and other Athabasca River Basin residents expect their governments to protect their ecosystems. We demand to see the actual sampling data. What do they and industry have to hide if in fact the effluent is ‘harmless' as their press spokespeople say. Just give us the data."

Release of the water test results are critical since it would appear the Obed Mountain coal slurry spill is one of the largest in North American history. The U. S. government coal impoundment location and information system has a comprehensive list of the historical coal slurry spills from coal mines in the U.S. Here is their list of the top five coal spill disasters:


Volume (gallons)





River System




Massey Energy Company 




Big Sandy River 

Spill Details 



Pittston Coal Company 




Guyandotte River 

Spill Details 



Massey Energy Company 




Big Sandy River 

Spill Details 



Eastover Mining Company 




Cumberland River 

Spill Details 



Peabody Coal Company 




Coal River 

Spill Details 


When compared to these large spills, the spill in Alberta is the second largest. The
compared to these large spills, the spill in Alberta is the second largest. There have been other coal slurry spills in Canada recently, like a small 6,000 gallon coal slurry spill into the Similkameen River two months ago near Princeton, British Colombia. Locals there were very upset that it took days for the mining company to inform them of the spill.

Given the magnitude of Alberta spill, the lack of information provided by Alberta Environment is very troubling. In the wake of the spill, the Edmonton Journal has done the best job investigating and reporting information about the monumental spill and the government response. To its credit, the Edmonton Journal has repeatedly asked Alberta Environment to live up to its Nov. 2 promise to release water test results. And yet none of the data has been made public.

In the large multi-million gallon coal slurry spills in the U.S., there was substantial contamination of the rivers and streams with a toxic stew of pollutants including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals. These spills killed people, damaged property, caused fish kills and long-term damage to aquatic ecosystems that lasted years after the spills.

There were allegations of a toxic cover up of the federal investigation into the largest coal slurry spill in U.S. history. 60 Minutes produced this ground breaking investigative report showing how Jack Spadero, an engineer for the National Mine Health and Safety Academy was fired after he blew the whistle on a white wash investigation into the 300 million gallon coal slurry spill by Massey Energy.

Because the spill in Alberta is one of the largest in North American history and possibly the largest in Canadian history, it is imperative for the Canadian Government to do a full, open and transparent investigation. The fact that the water sample results have not been reported as promised is cause for concern. Does it signal the beginning of a toxic cover up similar to what happened with the largest coal slurry spill in the U.S.?

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the spill in Alberta. For example, what was the timeline of the emergency response by both the coal company and the Canadian government? How long did it take for the spill to be reported and when did government investigators first arrive on the scene? According to reports from Alberta, the massive coal slurry pond was completely drained before government officials responded.

How much time elapsed between the first report of the spill and the deployment of emergency response assets to initiate containment and clean up? For a spill of this magnitude, the coal company should have immediately deployed every available asset to contain the spill to try and prevent waste water from leaving their property, polluting two tributaries and reaching the Athabasca River. Did that happen and when? And if it did, why weren't containment efforts successful? Why was the Athabasca River polluted with coal slurry waste many, many miles downstream of the spill site? What caused the dam to fail and when was it last inspected?

As the satellite image shows below, there are many coal waste ponds at the massive 20 square kilometer Obed Coal mine site. Which one failed? Are any of the other dams slumping, leaking or showing signs of failure? [see image at -]

This is an internationally significant news story. Alberta Environment should stop stonewalling and release information about the impact of the spill. If it doesn't, it is incumbent upon the Canadian Federal Government to step in and do a full, open and transparent investigation.

"The Athabasca River is a Canadian Heritage River and one of Alberta's most significant because of it's historical, cultural and ecological value," said Glenn Isaac, executive director of North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper.

"Ask any angler, canoeist or hiker who has experienced this area of the Athabasca River. You'll find out that this river has an abundance of fish, clean mountain waters and other natural gifts that are now threatened. The ecological importance of the Athabasca River near our Jasper National Park, cannot be overstated. Riverkeeper will continue to monitor the investigation currently underway," said Isaac.

"The Fisheries Act exists in Canada to safeguard our environment from accidents of this nature. When accidents happen, the Fisheries Act carries serious penalties which must be enforced to punish the polluter and deter similar events in the future," said Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. "We will be watching the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' investigation very closely to ensure our laws are given meaning and force to keep our waters swimmable, drinkable and fishable."

‘Major failure' of coal mine pit releases waste water into Athabasca River

By Caley Ramsay

Global News

8 November 2013

EDMONTON - The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is responding to what it calls a "major failure" of a pit at a coal mine near Hinton.

A pit containing coal process and surface water failed at the Obed Mountain Coal Mine on Thursday evening, releasing a large quantity of the process water into the Athabasca River.

"Coal mines typically have a pit where the waste and water - coal dust and water - gather. And that pit, the open pit that contains that mixture, failed," explained Darin Barter, a spokesperson with AER. "It's our understanding that the water has entered two tributaries in the Athabasca River."

Communities in the area have been notified of the failure, but Barter says it doesn't affect residents' drinking water.

"Residents may see a noticeable colour change to the river as the sediment moves downstream," added Robyn Cochrane, a spokesperson with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ASRD).

"Initial water samples are currently being analyzed by independent labs and they'll be reviewed by Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Environment and Sustainable Resource Development staff."

Cochrane says the results of the tests will be made public once they're complete, which she believes could be as soon as Sunday.

Barter says an investigation is underway to determine if Obed Mountain Coal Ltd. was complying with AER requirements.

"In a nutshell, a company is required to operate safely. This is a major failure at a pit so our geotechnical folks are on site right now evaluating the construction, what exactly occurred. And if we determine that they were non-compliant with regulations, we can take serious measures all the way up to closing the mine down," he said. "If they're non-compliant, there's going to be consequences."

The coal mine is located about 30 kilometres east of Hinton.

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