Flooding causes mine wastewater spill, adding to an alarming list of spills across Alberta this year
Edmonton, AB – The provincial regulator has reported repeated incidents of wastewater overflows at mine sites across Alberta this spring, with the most recent overflow from coal mines in Hinton and Grande Cache. In a statement made by the regulator on June 20, they report wastewater discharges above approved water quality limits or from unapproved sources due to excessive rainwater overwhelming the mine sites. They also mention the increased rainfall is causing erosion to mine infrastructure designed to store the wastewater, which include tailings ponds.
The regulator states there are no public health safety risks, but no further details are provided on the potential environmental impacts of the overflows. We are alarmed that many concerning environmental aspects are still unknown, including the components of the wastewater, potential contaminant levels, water bodies impacted, potential impacts to wildlife, volume of the wastewater spilled, or even the exact locations of the spills.
The regulator states these ponds are supposed to safely collect the runoff and store it under “normal” operating conditions. However, “weather conditions, now and into the future, are going to be outside of what was considered ‘normal’ when the mines were initially approved,” says Tara Russell, Program Director. “Companies need to drastically adapt to a changing climate, including upgrading infrastructure to prevent these spills. This incident continues a pattern of disregard for environmental impacts by companies and the regulator.” Increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather conditions must also be considered when evaluating the environmental impacts of new project proposals.
It is not the first time this year that spills from oil sands and coal mines across the province have caught the eye of the public.
In February, an almost year-long leak of industrial wastewater from an oil sands mine site was uncovered, followed by a 5.3 million liters spill from a wastewater storage pond by Imperial Oil. On March 4, over 1 million liters of coal wastewater was discharged into the Smoky River by CST Coal. Then, on April 16, the oil sands company, Suncor, reported that its Fort Hills mine had discharged nearly six million litres of water that exceeded sediment guidelines into Fort Creek, which flows into the Athabasca River.
“The public has a right to feel safe from industrial accidents that can cost us the health of our watersheds and communities,” asks Gillian Chow-Fraser, Boreal Program Director. “These disasters cannot keep happening without stronger action from the provincial regulator. We need a regulator that can protect the public, not just the companies.”
Mines put undue stress on our water sources, which can impact downstream drinking waters across the province. Wastewater from coal and oil sands mines can be harmful to wildlife, water quality and downstream communities. Oil sands wastewaters can include naphthenic acids, dissolved iron, arsenic, hydrocarbons, and sulphates. These contaminants pose acute and chronic health risks to fish and other wildlife. Coal wastewater includes selenium, and other suspended solids, both toxic contaminants that can be harmful to fish, other wildlife, and humans.