October 31, 2013 Hinton Alberta:
A coal mining plant tailing pond breeched today, spilling approximately 1,000,000,000 Litres (264 million US gallons) of tailings (hydrocarbons, chemicals, heavy metals, coal, silt, salt and brackish water) into the head-waters of the Athabasca river, a river already under siege by tar sand mining operations many hundreds of kilometres down stream. A Billion litres would fill more than 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools and the Athabasca River where this berm collapse occurred is only 60 meters across and maybe 8 meters deep.
The AthabascaRiver is one of Alberta’s largest rivers and at 1250 Km long, it carries water through every geological zone in the province and many of its endangered wet lands and ecological areas. Originating in the Rocky Mountains near the town of Jasper, the Athabasca River flows north and east across central and northern Alberta, sharing water ways with the province of Saskatchewan and the North West Territories.
Approximately 30 Km (19 mi.), North East of Hinton, Alberta, Canada and along the bank of the upper Athabasca River lies the Sheritt International, Obed Mountain coal mine (53°33′50″N 117°31′50″W). According to the media sources the facility is not operating however there is little other information available on the facility. It was recently an active coal mine and primary processing facility that separates coal from the surrounding rock, dirt and other minerals. From a CBC article on the condition of the tailings:
“According to Environment Canada, the water being stored at the mine contained potentially damaging compounds, including a suspected carcinogen known to cause tumors in laboratory animals. There’s also arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and manganese found at the disposal site…”
Coal separation requires the use of chemicals which permit frothing, depress frothing, surfactants to permit floatation and in some cases chemicals to neutralize the sulphur commonly found in coal. Conventional agents used in coal separation include, but are not limited to Aliphatic Alcohols which are only slightly soluble in water, available as amyl alcohols, butyl alcohols, terpinols, cresols and pine oils. A common frothing agent is ‘methyl-isobutyl-carbinol’.
Towns and cities which draw their water from the Athabasca River (Whitecourt, Athabasca, Ft. McMurray), the Peace River and the Slave River will be adversely affected by this spill, which is expected to reach Great Slave Lake by December. Although the Provincial Government response is that there is nothing to fear from muddy water the actual dangers are already known to them as the CBC article noted. It is interesting to note that four days passed between the berm collapse and public notification. It is also interesting to note that the media is doing what it can to cover this up.
If you are interested in learning more about the Athabasca River, how it affects us and how we are treating it, here is a submission by students from the University of Lethbridge, Ab. in .pdf format.