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Did Canada Just Have the Largest Coal Slurry Spill in Its History?

Energy
Did Canada Just Have the Largest Coal Slurry Spill in Its History?

A scary thing happened on Halloween near Hinton, Alberta. Canada had what may be the largest coal slurry spill in its history when a dam failed at the Obed Mountain coal mine and 264 million gallons (1 billion litres) of waste water contaminated at least 25 kilometers of the Athabasca river. Ten municipalities located downstream of the spill were warned not to withdraw raw drinking water from the Athabasca river until it was deemed safe. Residents were also warned not to let their animals drink water from the river.

The federal government dispatched officials from Environment Canada as well as Fisheries and Oceans Canada to investigate whether violations of the Canadian Fisheries Act occurred as a result of the massive dam failure and subsequent contamination of the Athabasca River. Critics are beginning to lash out at the government response. Rachel Notley, a Legislative Assembly representative and lawyer wants to know why it took five days for the Alberta provincial government to issue warnings to communities downstream. Others are concerned about conflicting government statements that the spill was relatively harmless. They say if the spill was harmless, why were they warned not to use the Athabasca River as a source of drinking water for municipalities and livestock?

“For the communities living downstream with years of toxic waste, this coal slurry spill is adding to the cumulative effects they are left to deal with," said Jesse Cardinal, coordinator for the Keepers of the Athabasca. "Fort Chipewywan recently got a new water treatment system which is to be one of the best in North America, and even still, after hearing of this coal spill, are once again, starting to fear drinking the water.”

Two days after the spill, the Alberta Environment spokesperson Robyn Cochrane said in this Global News Canada interview, “Initial water samples are currently being analyzed by independent labs and will be reviewed by Alberta Health Services and Environment and Sustainable Resource Development staff. Once we have these results, we will make them public.”

Water test results were expected on Nov. 3. To date, Alberta Environment still has not made any water test results public. If the preliminary water results “indicate that the water is not health-hazardous” as Environment Alberta spokesperson Jessica Potter said in this news story, why not release them? What are they hiding? And more importantly, why have they reneged on their promise to make the water test results public?

"If, as the vague Alberta Government statements claim, the tailings are 'harmless to health' why are they unwilling to share them with their citizen shareholders. If they are only 'coal dust' then show us the data." said Harvey Scott, director of the Keepers of the Athabasca.

"We are concerned that the tailings ponds may contain such things as high concentrations of selenium which can be very toxic for native fish reproduction. The stream that transferred the pond effluent to the Athabasca is a known fishery for several important native species. Will its reproductive capacity be seriously affected? Settling pond flocculants can be deleterious to fish reproduction - has that been assessed? Indigenous peoples and other Canadians depend upon these fisheries to provide them partial livelihoods and recreational fishing. How will this tailings release affect that? The Keepers of the Athabasca and other Athabasca River Basin residents expect their governments to protect their ecosystems. We demand to see the actual sampling data. What do they and industry have to hide if in fact the effluent is 'harmless' as their press spokespeople say. Just give us the data."

Release of the water test results are critical since it would appear the Obed Mountain coal slurry spill is one of the largest in North American history. The U. S. government coal impoundment location and information system has a comprehensive list of the historical coal slurry spills from coal mines in the U.S. Here is their list of the top five coal spill disasters:

Year

Volume (gallons)

Company

Town

County

State

River System

 

2000 

309,000,000 

Massey Energy Company 

Inez 

Martin 

KY 

Big Sandy River 

Spill Details 

1972 

132,000,000 

Pittston Coal Company 

Lorado 

Logan 

WV 

Guyandotte River 

Spill Details 

1994 

112,000,000 

Massey Energy Company 

Inez 

Martin 

KY 

Big Sandy River 

Spill Details 

1981 

25,000,000 

Eastover Mining Company 

Ages 

Harlan 

KY 

Cumberland River 

Spill Details 

1987 

23,000,000 

Peabody Coal Company 

Montcoal 

Raleigh 

WV 

Coal River 

Spill Details 

When compared to these large spills, the spill in Alberta is the second largest. There have been other coal slurry spills in Canada recently, like a small 6,000 gallon coal slurry spill into the Similkameen River two months ago near Princeton, British Colombia. Locals there were very upset that it took days for the mining company to inform them of the spill.

Given the magnitude of Alberta spill, the lack of information provided by Alberta Environment is very troubling. In the wake of the spill, the Edmonton Journal has done the best job investigating and reporting information about the monumental spill and the government response. To its credit, the Edmonton Journal has repeatedly asked Alberta Environment to live up to its Nov. 2 promise to release water test results. And yet none of the data has been made public.

In the large multi-million gallon coal slurry spills in the U.S., there was substantial contamination of the rivers and streams with a toxic stew of pollutants including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals. These spills killed people, damaged property, caused fish kills and long-term damage to aquatic ecosystems that lasted years after the spills.

There were allegations of a toxic cover up of the federal investigation into the largest coal slurry spill in U.S. history. 60 Minutes produced this ground breaking investigative report showing how Jack Spadero, an engineer for the National Mine Health and Safety Academy was fired after he blew the whistle on a white wash investigation into the 300 million gallon coal slurry spill by Massey Energy.

Because the spill in Alberta is one of the largest in North American history and possibly the largest in Canadian history, it is imperative for the Canadian Government to do a full, open and transparent investigation. The fact that the water sample results have not been reported as promised is cause for concern. Does it signal the beginning of a toxic cover up similar to what happened with the largest coal slurry spill in the U.S.?

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the spill in Alberta. For example, what was the timeline of the emergency response by both the coal company and the Canadian government? How long did it take for the spill to be reported and when did government investigators first arrive on the scene? According to reports from Alberta, the massive coal slurry pond was completely drained before government officials responded.

How much time elapsed between the first report of the spill and the deployment of emergency response assets to initiate containment and clean up? For a spill of this magnitude, the coal company should have immediately deployed every available asset to contain the spill to try and prevent waste water from leaving their property, polluting two tributaries and reaching the Athabasca River. Did that happen and when? And if it did, why weren't containment efforts successful? Why was the Athabasca River polluted with coal slurry waste many, many miles downstream of the spill site? What caused the dam to fail and when was it last inspected?

As the satellite image shows below, there are many coal waste ponds at the massive 20 square kilometer Obed Coal mine site. Which one failed? Are any of the other dams slumping, leaking or showing signs of failure?

This is an internationally significant news story. Alberta Environment should stop stonewalling and release information about the impact of the spill. If it doesn’t, it is incumbent upon the Canadian Federal Government to step in and do a full, open and transparent investigation.

"The Athabasca River is a Canadian Heritage River and one of Alberta's most significant because of it's historical, cultural and ecological value," said Glenn Isaac, executive director of North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper.

"Ask any angler, canoeist or hiker who has experienced this area of the Athabasca River. You'll find out that this river has an abundance of fish, clean mountain waters and other natural gifts that are now threatened. The ecological importance of the Athabasca River near our Jasper National Park, cannot be overstated. Riverkeeper will continue to monitor the investigation currently underway," said Isaac.

"The Fisheries Act exists in Canada to safeguard our environment from accidents of this nature. When accidents happen, the Fisheries Act carries serious penalties which must be enforced to punish the polluter and deter similar events in the future," said Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. "We will be watching the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' investigation very closely to ensure our laws are given meaning and force to keep our waters swimmable, drinkable and fishable." 

Visit EcoWatch’s COAL and WATER page for more related news on this topic.

 

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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