The Alberta government should not allow any new coal mines around the North Saskatchewan River, Edmonton’s only source of drinking water, until it completes a “scientifically rigorous” review of all the risks, says the city’s water utility company in a new report.

Beginning in the Columbia Icefields in Banff National Park, the river is not only Edmonton’s only source of drinking water, but it is also a vital wildlife corridor.

The report, which is based on a risk assessment conducted by the city’s water utility EPCOR, notes that coal mines are known to affect water quality and contribute to climate change both through deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions from the mines themselves.

On Friday, city councillors on Edmonton’s utility committee unanimously recommended to city council that the mayor write a letter to the provincial government underscoring the potentially “serious impact of coal mining on our regional watershed and ecosystems.”

The municipal committee also recommended that council direct the city manager and EPCOR to make a submission to a provincial coal policy committee based on the report, and direct the city administration to report back on both the status of the North Saskatchewan River Regional Plan and the need for a “formal watershed management plan.”

Understanding the combined impact of multiple mines is crucial because each new project mine could increase contaminant and sediment levels in the waterway “with dire consequences for the animals that live in the river,” said Greg Goss, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta and a new member of the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance.

He agrees watershed scale modelling is needed to fully understand the combined impact of any new mines on water quality and how that may affect aquatic species, he said, particularly given climate models that project increased rainfall in the headwaters, which could in turn increase the risk of contaminants leaching from mine waste rock.

coal exploration eastern slopes Rocky Mountains Clearwater River
The new report from Edmonton’s water utility notes that while the risk to the city’s drinking water is low, the rare mine failure would still have devastating effects. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Canadian Press / The Narwhal

The EPCOR report concludes the risk to Edmonton’s drinking water is low and the risks to aquatic ecosystem health within the city are medium-low if potential future coal mines follow existing regulatory requirements.

However, despite existing rules, “coal mining can have both long term and short term environmental impacts,” it says.

“In the event of a rare catastrophic mine failure (such as a tailings dam failure), there would be an extreme impact on downstream water quality,” the report says.

Christopher Smith, parks coordinator with the northern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, described this as a “non-negligible risk” for Edmonton.

“If that were to happen it could severely impact the City of Edmonton’s capacity to provide water for Edmontonians,” Smith said. 

EPCOR’s assessment itself notes two relatively recent tailings dam failures — one at the Obed Mountain coal mine in Hinton, Alta. in 2013 and another at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine near Quesnel, B.C. in 2014 — that contaminated water with mine waste. 

Report follows months-long battle over coal policy

Edmonton City Council asked city staff and EPCOR in February to report back on the risks of possible future coal mining and tools the municipality could use to protect the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River.

The directive followed a number of tense months in Alberta starting in the spring of 2020 when Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government rescinded the 1976 Coal Policy that, among other things, restricted coal exploration and development on Category 2 lands along the eastern slopes of the Rockies and foot, which included the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River.

In the wake of considerable public backlash, the province reinstated the policy in early February and announced it would consult before developing “a new, modern coal policy.” Public consultations are underway now and a final report from the provincial coal policy committee is due on November 15.

Precautionary approach urged to avoid decades long pollution challenges

While the report to Edmonton’s Utility Committee notes that any future mines will be subject to environmental assessment, these are conducted on a project-by-project basis.  

Coal mines are associated with numerous pollutants such as aluminum, nitrate, cadmium and arsenic, the report notes. Selenium, which leaches from coal mine waste rock and is toxic to aquatic life at elevated levels, is a particular concern.

Just across the provincial border, B.C.’s Elk Valley has battled selenium pollution from coal mines for decades and with several new mines proposed in that area, experts fear the problem will continue to get worse.

It’s a particular concern for west slope cutthroat trout, listed as a threatened species under the Species at Risk Act

“The population is likely doomed,” according to a recent report by the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre urging Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to launch an inquiry into Elk Valley mine pollution.

aerial view of mines in Elk Valley
The debates around pollution concerns that are playing out in Alberta right now have parallels across the border in B.C.’s Elk Valley, where coal mines have caused selenium pollution for decades. Photo: Callum Gunn

The City of Edmonton report notes that with five per cent of the North Saskatchewan watershed already covered by coal leases there is a risk to source water and aquatic life from selenium pollution should development proceed.

EPCOR recommends that a “precautionary approach” be taken in any assessment of potential coal mining.

“Despite advances in treatment technologies, exposing rock rich in selenium and other metals has been shown to affect water quality for decades in downstream water bodies,” the report notes.

“Mitigation and remediation is cost prohibitive and difficult.”

Robin Campbell, the president of the Coal Association of Canada, an industry lobby group, said in a statement to The Narwhal that companies employ “multiple lines of defence” against selenium contamination. He said modern mines minimize the use of water through water recycling and take a “rigorous approach” to protecting surface water.

Edmonton urged to be a ‘zealous advocate’

The report from municipal staff recommends the city submit a technical report based on its findings to the provincial Coal Policy Committee and report back on the need for a watershed management plan.

While Smith said he appreciates the work that went into the report, ultimately the issue requires a broader lens.

“It comes down to the general ecological integrity of the river and as a wildlife corridor and that extends beyond municipal boundaries,” he said, noting that the area where mining would take place is a significant recreation area for many Edmonton residents.

While decisions around the future of mining may not fall within the City of Edmonton’s purview, Smith said “they can absolutely act as a zealous advocate on the provincial stage.”

“It’s one of the biggest metropolitan areas in Alberta, and they do have sway,” he said.

In response to The Narwhal’s interview request, a spokesperson for Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said the mayor would wait to comment until the report is brought before city council.

Updated Aug. 27, 2021, at 10:32 a.m. PT: New information added about city councillors response to the reports and recommendations.

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