Proposed federal rules would allow coal mines to release more toxins in their effluent

The federal government bowed to pressure from provinces and industry by weakening proposed standards for coal mining effluent, critics say.

The draft regulations, published earlier this year, would double the amount of toxins – such as selenium – that mines are allowed to discharge and would not apply to any mine starting production before 2027. They also do not require companies to monitor overall environmental effects. .

“Environment Canada has been pushed back,” said Bill Donahue, an environmental science consultant and former chief surveillance officer for the Alberta government. “This has significantly lowered the proposed standards in terms of rigor.”

Environment Canada began revising its coal mining effluent rules in 2017 and released a previous set of proposals in 2020.

Weaker in several respects

The current proposals are weaker in several respects.

They allow effluent to contain up to 20 micrograms of selenium per liter in a sample and a monthly average of 10 micrograms. This is twice as much as the previous proposal.

“Concerns have been raised by industry and provinces about the feasibility of previously proposed new mine boundaries,” the document said.

Selenium is an element closely associated with coal. It accumulates in the environment and affects the ability of fish to reproduce.

Allowable limits for suspended solids, which damage fish habitat, would also be doubled, again in response to industry concerns.

Some monitoring would end

Additionally, some contaminants associated with coal mining like sodium, antimony and chloride will not have to be monitored, Donahue said.

Environment Canada is also proposing to exempt from the new rules any mine that begins production within three years of their entry into force. Since the rules are not expected to be proclaimed until the end of 2023 at the earliest, this means they would not apply to any mine that begins production before 2027.

A federal official, who spoke in the background, defended the proposed contaminant limits.

“It’s a number that has to be reached at the end of the pipe (where) you have 100% concentrated effluent. In the receiver you have some level of dilution.”

Provinces can tighten licensing standards

The selenium limits are meant to be a consistent national standard, and provinces can impose stricter standards on individual mining permits, she said.

She added that the three-year delay before the rules take effect is intended to prevent companies whose mines are already in the planning stage from having to start over to comply with the new standards.

Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society noted that Alberta is currently considering opening up its Rocky Mountains to surface coal mining. She was concerned that the proposed regulations would allow projects to proceed without having to meet even the more lenient requirements they propose.

“In the event that we see new mines open, I think they should expect to introduce water treatment technology that meets these upcoming limits – preferably more stringent.”

She said effluent standards should not be based on what’s right for industry.

“It’s a backwards approach. Rather than setting limits that protect water quality, they’re setting limits that industry says they can meet.”

“Focus entirely on the end of the pipe”

Donahue said the proposals don’t address what actually happens in an ecosystem downstream of a mine or consider that many of the contaminants under study build up over time.

“It focuses entirely on the point of discharge rather than the cumulative effects downstream. They’re basically saying, ‘If you discharge effluent below this amount, we’ll consider it to have no effect.

Companies should analyze selenium in the tissues of adult fish. But that won’t reveal what’s happening to the general population, Donahue said.

Environment Canada is accepting public comments on the proposals until the end of March. A new 60-day comment period is planned for the end of the year with a final version of the regulations expected by the end of 2023.

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