By Marty Kinkenberg and Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal November 9, 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.
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. A day later, Alberta Environment notified downstream communities about the spill.
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.