There are spills and then there are spills. From the limited information released by media, it is often difficult to judge the severity of toxic releases in real time. Some events do stand out, such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, which in the summer of 2010 released more than half a million tons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. But the fact is, mining and fossil fuel industries involve complex operations spanning large areas and transport distances. Thus, to some degree, we must accept that spills are inevitable.
Given this eventuality, it is the responsibility of industry and government to not only ensure that all necessary prevention mechanisms are in place, but that proper emergency response strategies and resources exist. This is why, as an Albertan, I am disappointed time and time again in the face of both the number of such events and the lack of appropriate response by industry and government in my province. An earlier article of mine focused on an oil spill earlier this year in northern Alberta. Here is another recent severe release, this time from a coal mining operation near the town of Hinton in the west of the province.
On October 31, 670 million litres of ‘process water’ were released into the Athabasca River – the largest such spill in the province’s history – after an impound housing the toxic slurry failed. Process water or tailings is the liquid waste left behind from the extraction process, enriched in toxic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals (arsenic, lead, mercury). Very little information was provided at the time of the event, although a statement was released that the spill had been ‘contained’. However, a preliminary study found that while the waste remaining at the site itself had been contained, the resulting stream or plume of contaminants extended 113 km (70 mi) downriver by Nov. 8.
Due to a 2009 court decision, mine operators must publicly disclose the chemical composition of process water, although this is not currently the case in other processes such as fracking within the province. But even though we know the nature of the toxic compounds, information about the spill itself is shrouded in a lack of transparency. This is of particular concern for downstream aboriginal communities, fish populations, and aquatic ecosystems. The Alberta government has ordered the mine operator to ‘clean up’ the spill and advised communities not to draw drinking water from the river in the near future. A government spokesperson stated that the spill “has been dissipating the entire time”. Currently, the river is beginning to freeze over for the winter, which will put any remediation efforts off until the spring.
Could this situation have been handled differently? Based on the available information, it is difficult to judge the response of the mine operator, which will likely become clearer in retrospect as the appropriate investigations are (hopefully) carried out. In my mind, however, the government’s response serves as a testament to their lack of foresight, appropriate regulations, and emergency preparedness. As I stated earlier, spills happen. Large spills happen. And not all of these spills can be remediated. But in this case (and not out of character), the government has tried to wash its hands clean of the matter by placing the burden on industry and reminding us that natural systems will dilute spills over time.
Even as a distant and unqualified observer, I can immediately point out some flaws. First, in the absence of regulations preventing the construction of such impoundments near natural conduits such as the Athabasca River, it is clear that any release will result in a plume that greatly increases the affected area. Second, given a spill of this magnitude, the public should be made aware of risks and hazards and have access to information as soon as it is available. Finally, sweeping generalizations take the focus away from the severity of the issue at hand. The reality is that we have no economically feasible way to ‘clean up’ a spill of this magnitude in its entirety. And while the river will certainly ‘dissipate’ the contaminant over time, that is as much a cause for concern as it is for optimism, since contaminants will likely find their way from water to shores and sediments, where even in relatively low concentrations they can have significant consequences for aquatic ecosystems. While spills might often be unpredictable, the sheer number of releases in the province and the ineptitude with which they are handed warrants a re-evaluation of the policies and practices currently on the table.
You can find ongoing updates on this spill here.
Be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science.
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