A study looking into airborne dust coming from mountaintop coal mines in the Elk Valley is sparking renewed calls for better risk assessment and mitigation strategies as B.C. looks to expand critical mineral mining, according to one expert.
In a recent study by Wyatt Petryshen, mining policy and impacts researcher for the Kootenay-based environmental group Wildsight, it was found that elevated concentrations of selenium, silver, germanium, nickel, uranium, vanadium, and zirconium, with higher levels increasing the closer the samples were to the mines.
Dust produced during mining operations drifts into the air and is transported and deposited throughout the landscape, facilitated by regional winds and local topography.
Wildsight says that while there has been a lot of study of the impacts of mine effluent aquatic ecosystems, research on air quality impacts has lagged.
“The implications of this study are significant as it demonstrates the extent and spatial distribution of contaminants originating from fugitive dust emissions surrounding mountaintop mines and some of the controls to its distribution in mountain regions,” Petryshen said in a news release.
The study involved analyzing moss samples gathered from 19 locations surround Elkview Mine and the town of Sparwood.
“Moss biomonitoring is a widely used technique dating back to the 1970s. It’s a cost-effective and relatively easy-to-use methodology because researchers can assess multiple elements and can constrain time frames of contamination to the last two to three years,” he said. “Moss absorbs atmospheric pollution directly into its tissue, acting like a sponge for contaminants.”
In response to the study, Black Press Media reached out to Teck for comment. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson noted that the samples in the study showed less selenium concentrations than the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment soil quality guideline, which is 1.0 mg/kg dry weight.
“Teck has a number of dust mitigation measures and dust monitoring systems currently in place at Elk Valley operations and we are piloting other innovative measures and monitoring approaches to drive continued improvements in dust management,” the statement read. “We also have a dedicated dust management team focused on minimizing dust year-round.”
Wildsight acknowledged that there are five air quality monitoring stations, but “there is currently no recurring environmental monitoring of heavy metals that may be spread through the air.”
Petryshen said he is optimistic that this study will launch further investigations into the spread of dust from Elk Valley mines. “Epidemiological studies have reported that persons living near MTR coal mines experience significantly higher rates of morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, respiratory disease, dental disease, and cancer compared to persons not living near coal mining operations,” the study says.
“I am hopeful that future work will continue to explore how dust emissions from mountaintop mines are transported and deposited in mountainous regions, and how implementing new mitigation strategies for different aspects of the mining, processing, and transport process can reduce environmental and community exposure to fugitive dust emissions.”