Selenium from open-pit coal mining may pose downstream risk to ag

Potential of selenium pollution in Alberta’s major watersheds a threat to agriculture and others downstream, say livestock nutritionist and conservationist

The effects of selenium pollution in rivers near open-pit coal mines can be felt hundreds of kilometres downstream, says a conservation organization. 

In studying the impacts of open-pit coal mining in B.C.’s Elk Valley, Lars Sander-Green has seen how selenium leaching from four metallurgical coal mines contaminated the local drinking water supply and devastated fish populations before flowing south into Montana and Idaho with levels of selenium significantly higher than state regulations allow.

[AUDIO CLIP] Wildsight’s Lars Sander-Green explains how open-pit coal mining in B.C.’s Elk Valley has led to pollution of the Elk River and other tributaries. 

On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, several proposed open-pit coal mines sit on the headwaters of major river systems that sustain the Prairie provinces. Based on his experience in the Elk Valley, Sander-Green, the mining lead for the conservation organization Wildsight, believes the potential negative downstream impacts for Alberta need to be given more consideration by the province.  

“It’s really a serious problem that I think we need to take a lot more seriously than we are taking through the environmental assessment process and the different regulatory processes that are happening right now,” he says. 

After a surge of opposition by Albertans to open-pit coal mining, also known as mountain-top removal, Energy Minister Sonya Savage stated on Feb. 8 that mountain-top removal mining will not be allowed in Alberta. However, critics argue the language in her directive to the Alberta Energy Regulator is only specific to former Category 2 lands. If so, that would leave other land categories open to this form of mining and potentially allow strip mining on mountainsides.  

Producers pushing back against coal mining on the Eastern Slopes are funding two separate studies into how coal mining could affect the environment. The Livingstone Landowners Group’s study will focus on water quality and quantity, while the Pekisko Group is funding a study into how air quality might be affected by things such as dust.  

[AUDIO CLIP] Lars Sander-Green talks about other toxins from open-pit coal mining that can pollute water.

When it comes to water pollution, the likelihood of selenium leaching is similar no matter the form of surface mining, Sander-Green states. “There’s really no difference… if you’re taking the very top off the mountain or you just took half of the mountain away.”

Risks to agriculture 

The likelihood of selenium contamination and its far-reaching effects on prairie river systems concerns ruminant nutritionist Lee Eddy. Eddy, co-founder of Blue Rock Animal Nutrition in Innisfail, Alta, has written about the dangers of selenium toxicity to livestock. He predicts Alberta’s agriculture industry will be especially affected should mines such as the controversial Grassy Mountain Coal Project, located near the headwaters of the Oldman River, be approved. 

“The toxicity in monogastrics is probably five to six parts per million in the feed, and you’ll definitely see toxic symptoms, and they call it mulberry disease in pigs. And cattle, definitely once we get up to 20 parts per million, we’ll start seeing toxic signs in animals. We especially see this in calves in knuckling over the front hocks,” he says.  

“The toxicity signs are very similar to the deficiency signs, so sometimes it’s quite often misdiagnosed as a deficiency when it is a toxicity.” 

Eddy anticipates contaminated drinking water for livestock — as well as humans — wouldn’t be the only issue in parts of Alberta that rely on the South Saskatchewan River watershed, of which the Oldman River is a tributary. 

[Hear more in this ‘Between the Rows’ podcast episode.]

“There would have to be a decision made as to whether water could be removed from the South Saskatchewan River for irrigation (or) watering cattle,” he says. “One of the ways to deal with a selenium toxic event is to let it just flow, and we call that dilution.” 

Dilution could keep selenium at a safe level for human consumption. But that would only work if large quantities of water weren’t pulled from the river system. 

“We might not get to where it’s toxic for the people in Lethbridge, but to keep it that way they would start taking irrigation allocations away and feedlot permits.”  

If that happened, Eddy continues, cattle feeders in the area known as feedlot alley would be forced to shut down. This could create a negative ripple effect on the province’s cow-calf producers, who may see the value of their calves decrease if they have to be sold to feeders in the U.S. 

As well, the loss of irrigation permits in a region that grows a wide variety of cereal crops and vegetables could severely diminish production of these commodities, he adds. 

“I think the risk is too high for the potential downside on agriculture,” says Eddy. “I’d just like people to read up on it and think past the mountains.”  

Questions about water reallocation 

In Lethbridge, on the banks of the Oldman River, city council voted unanimously in early February to contact the province regarding the city’s concerns with the proposed open-pit mines. 

Water safety wasn’t the only concern expressed by Lethbridge City Council. The Lethbridge Herald reports that the council also requested the province “immediately stop any reallocation of water for the purposes of coal mining in the Oldman River watershed and other watersheds in Alberta, pending a broader public consultation process on a new coal policy.”  

The provincial government’s announcement in November that it would open some water allocations at the headwaters of the Oldman to coal companies drew criticism from experts who noted the existing water shortages in this river system. The Alberta government stopped accepting applications for new water allocations in the Oldman, Bow and South Saskatchewan basins several years ago as allocation limits had been reached or exceeded.  

Sander-Green can’t say for sure what would happen if proposed open-pit coal mines in Alberta are approved, as it depends on factors such as the selenium concentration in the rock. But he’s concerned it may be all too similar to the Elk Valley experience.  

“Most of the mines on the Alberta side say, ‘oh, we’ll just treat the water and it’ll all be fine. Teck is doing it in the Elk Valley, don’t worry about it,’” he says. 

“From our experience of what’s happening in the Elk Valley...there’s a lot of promises and not a lot of real solutions. So I’d be pretty worried about what might happen in Alberta.”

[AUDIO CLIP] What Lars Sander-Green would like to see considered from a scientific perspective in the consultation period regarding a new coal policy.

Teck Resources, the owner of the Elk Valley mines, has built a large water treatment facility and also uses a saturate rock fill, “which is sort of a pit that the water goes into and it comes out cleaner on the other side, supposedly,” Sander-Green explains. 

Teck recently received a $60 million fine for releasing calcite and selenium into the Elk and Fording rivers, after pleading guilty under the federal Fisheries Act. 

Sander-Green doesn’t believe these efforts are nearly enough to mitigate the scale of the damage that has occurred to the Elk River and farther downstream. 

“First of all, they’re treating a minuscule proportion of the total amount of polluted water. It’s not really making a measurable impact at this point. And secondly, most of these pollution problems are expected to continue for centuries,” he says.  

“If we’re relying on these treatment plants, what we’re doing is we’re just putting the problem off, and once mining ends and there’s no money to run the treatment plant as well, we’re going to see that pollution problem come right back. And that’s especially true because Teck is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on water treatment in the Elk Valley, so there’s just no way that’s going to continue once that coal mining’s not coming in anymore.” 

The province has appointed a five-member committee to conduct a “comprehensive public engagement” on Alberta’s coal policy, The Western Producer reports. Albertans can also submit their views through the Coal policy engagement survey on the Alberta government website. The online survey closes April 19.

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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