MAC: Mines and Communities

Canada: Worries grow over vast coal slurry leak

Published by MAC on 2013-11-20
Source: Statements, Edmonton Journal

Spilled Coal Slurry Not Inert But Laced With Arsenic Toxic Metals and Carcinogenic PAHs

Data Shines Light on Efforts to Keep Public in the Dark and Downplay Impacts of Massive Spill

MiningWatch Canada

15 November 2013

Ottawa - On October 31, an impoundment holding a slurry of waste from Sherritt International's Obed Mountain coal mine failed realising approximately 670-million litres of waste into the Athabasca River watershed. Alberta government press releases referred to the waste as "process water"[1], "suspended solids, which include such things as clay and organic matter"[2], and sediments containing "such things as clay, mud, shale and coal particles"[3]. Official statements have provided very little information about the extent or magnitude of the spill and a November 4 statement stated the spill was somehow "contained". As reported in the Edmonton Journal, the only thing that was contained was the waste remaining at the mine site. The plume released to the river extended 113 km by November 8.[4]

The government's statements along with at least one unofficial statement to media from an employee of the mine[5] led to initial reporting that the released waste materials are inert. MiningWatch is very concerned about what appear to be efforts to keep the public in the dark about the environmental impacts of this spill.

Thanks to successful litigation by MiningWatch, Ecojustice and Great Lakes United coal and other mine operators have to report the toxic contents of waste products to the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI). Prior to the 2009 court decision, the federal government allowed a lapsed exemption to the Environmental Protection Act to remain in place for mining operations.

In sharp contrast to the descriptions provided by the Alberta government, data submitted by Sherritt to the NPRI indicate that tonnes of highly toxic materials were being dumped into the ponds every year. The toxic substances include carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. The wastes also include phosphorous, manganese and zinc, which have negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems and drinking water at elevated concentrations. These substances occur naturally in the coal and waste rock from the mine but become an environmental hazard when removed from the ground, processed and stored as slurry.

"This disaster clearly shows the impotence of federal and provincial governments' regulatory oversight and over-reliance on industry self-monitoring and social responsibility" stated Ramsey Hart, Program Coordinator at MiningWatch Canada. "Corporate commitments to sustainability like those made by Sherritt and many other mining companies ring hollow when faced with such an incident and how it's being handled" Hart added.

Concern over the impacts of the spill were confirmed by the unofficial release of water testing results by the Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health to the Edmonton Journal. The test results indicated elevated concentrations of PAHs and mercury in the waste plume that was moving downstream.[6]

The attached table provides the data taken from the NPRI for on-site releases of tailings or process water at the Obed Moutain Mine.

Contact: Ramsey Hart, MiningWatch Canada 613-298-4745 (mobile).

[1] Nov 1, Alberta Energy Regulator responding to Obed Mountain Coal Mine Process Water Containment Failure

[2] Nov 2, Update: Government responders are monitoring a sediment release into the Athabasca River from a decommissioned mine near Hinton

[3] Nov 4, Sediment release into Athabasca River has stopped

[4] Nov 12, Edmonton Journal

[5] Nov 4, Edmonton Journal

[6] Nov 15, Edmonton Journal

For links, the table of data and an image of the site please see the online version:

Dene Nation Concerned About Emergency Preparedness from Toxic Tailings Pond

Dene Nation press release

18 November 2013

Dene National Chief says no one is prepared

Yellowknife, NT - In a press conference today, Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus addressed the media over the major concern of a massive toxic tailings spill near Hinton, Alberta that flows into the Athabasca River and northward. "These toxins are from synthetic chemicals and heavy metals that are heading our way and will end up in the watersheds of the Northwest Territories. Yet, there is no clear process in emergency preparedness for this kind of pit failure."

Erasmus said that the Hinton coal mine leak is a major failure with one billion litres of contaminants seeping into the Athabasca River and eventually making its way north. "These contaminants are laced with arsenic, toxic metals and carcinogenic materials and only after learning about it in the media, we were left to our own devices to deal with it." He noted that it has taken almost three weeks for the Dene Nation to learn, through the media, of the occurrence of the massive Alberta pit failure.

The occurrence at the Obed Mountain Coal Mine, operated by Sherritt International, gave way on October 31, 2013. "We only learned about the unfortunate release of a large volume of contaminated water 19 days later," said Erasmus. "There is no clear process set up where we are immediately informed. We're very concerned. It's an extremely significant event that affects us all in the north, including the circumpolar world," said Erasmus. He added that the concern is also for long-term effects. "The volume of contaminants in the water will speak for itself through testing but we cannot rely on the environment to dilute the heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury to name a few. None of our governments are prepared to deal with this in a constructive way including the company involved."

Erasmus said there are countless questions to answer. "We don't know why the pit gave way or just what contaminants or sediment is leaking into the water. What we do know is that 1 billion litres in volume is a massive amount and we will be affected downstream." He acknowledged that Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development are involved in the investigation. "We also want to know if the company was in compliance with federal and provincial requirements and regulations."


For more information, contact:
Barrett (Sonny) Lenoir
Dene Nation
Tel: (867) 873-4081
Email: blenoir[at]

Opposition politicians raise questions about government's handling of coal waste water spill that released dangerous chemicals

By Marty Klinkenberg

Edmonton Journal

15 November 2013

EDMONTON - 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."

Government officials announced that one billion litres of sediment and dirty water escaped into the river, an amount that would rank as the second-largest coal slurry spill in U.S. history. The company on Thursday revised the estimate of the volume released to 670 million litres.

"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."

Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin was incredulous.

"How a minister can say that there is no threat to people or the environment without sufficient data is beyond me," Anglin said. "The idea that you could put a billion litres of coal waste into a river and think it's not toxic defies logic."

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