Teck Coal representatives faced a hostile crowd at a public forum in Sparwood last week, where residents and railroad employees raised concerns about airborne dust stemming from a nearby coal mine.
Staff from Elkview Operations presented a brief slideshow on dust management programs in the Elk Valley before opening the floor to questions and comments.
Sparwood resident Cordell Shears was one of the first to share his views.
“I for two years have got to deal with this, my kids have got to deal with this, my grandkids have to deal with this,” he said. “You’re killing the town man.”
Shears has worked in the mining industry for 38 years and demanded to know why Teck hadn’t addressed an issue the company has been aware of for the past two years, prompting applause from the crowd.
Elkview General Manager Don Sander admitted cost is a factor when it comes to dust management but said the company is trying to address it.
“We do have a dust issue and we recognize that,” he said.
Another audience member said as a healthcare worker, she is concerned about the amount of silica she may be unknowingly inhaling.
She argued that during the wildfire season when air quality is poor, she stays inside but she has no way of checking air quality in Sparwood when she goes she goes about her daily business.
“You’re turning it into a dump,” she said.
The woman also spoke of her own personal trauma when she posted a photo of dust on Facebook and was attacked by other users, which she attributed to a culture of protecting Teck.
Another man addressed Teck representatives: “I don’t think you guys realize just how upset Sparwood residents really are… You guys are turning Sparwood into a shell,” he said.
The resident spoke of having to wipe down his lawn furniture before having visitors because of the dust that had accumulated there.
“It has to change,” he said.
One audience member lives 14km north of Sparwood and spoke of his two-year battle with Teck to take responsibility for dust continually coating his home. He said eventually, the company paid for professional cleaning.
Two railroad employees were among the approximately 50 people who attended the public forum.
They operate coal trains from Sparwood to Golden and wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.
“We’re here to find out information on coal dust issues and health related effects for it, and what Teck’s doing to mitigate those factors,” one employee told The Free Press.
The employee said while he had not experienced health issues directly related to coal dust, both he and his colleagues were concerned about the amount coming off carts and into the cabs of the locomotives.
“You know you’re breathing in that coal dust when you’re in sitting in that cab for 10-12 hours at a time,” he said.
“It’s not a clean environment to be working in,” his colleague added.
“We just want to know what the health effects are, that’s why we’re here.”
The pair admitted coal dust is a problem on the whole coal train circuit.
Social Responsibility Manager Nic Milligan reassured the crowd residents’ quality of life is important to Teck and the District of Sparwood.
He said the company would take their feedback onboard and encouraged them to communicate their concerns with community representatives on an advisory committee formed as part of a condition of the Baldy Ridge Extension Permit at Elkview.
What residents said
“I think Teck is an excellent employer and I think they are very environmentally conscious, but, like all good things, we need to keep track of each other, so I think it’s important for me to hear what they have to say and see if there’s anything new with what they’re doing.
“When I was on council we got air quality reports frequently and they were always good, so I’m curious to see if there’s been a significant change since I sat on council four years ago… It looks like there’s more dust but it could be the hot, dry summer we had, so I’m very curious. I think they work hard to try to control it.”
“It’s a lot worse than it ever was. I know they have to mine, we understand that, we’ve lived here all our life. But in this day, I’m sure if they keep checking there’s got to be more they can do to control the dust. We’re invested in being here. Your home is here, this is where we’ve lived. You’ve got your houses and stuff, nobody is going to want to come here, and buy our houses.”
“I wash my car and I go outside if it’s rained there will be black rain on my car, so I’ve got to wash it again. It’s a big concern for us, health wise too because you are breathing in this stuff. You think you’ve done the right thing by staying here and now you’re looking back thinking why did I do this?”
“It can’t be great for your health, I’m asthmatic and it’s not super fun for me and I notice that when I go places that don’t have coal dust in the air, my asthma is better. It’s maybe not an everyday in your face impact but it does have to do with how dirty the town is as well. We go walking on the trails all the time and the trails are really nice, but coal falls off the trains and onto the trails. You have to cross the train tracks just to get to the river and your dog comes home with coal all over its paws.”
“I own a home in town and I don’t like the amount of dust you get every single day from the mine just out of town. On a daily basis it’s not too bad but your car is dirty and your siding is dirty, and I’m just concerned that 20 years from now if I still live here, that I’ll have the black lung or whatever.”
What Teck is doing to address airborne dust in Sparwood
Air quality in Sparwood is expected to improve by next summer when Teck closes the upper section of a problematic dump site at the Elkview coal mine.
The mining company hosted a public forum on air quality at the Sparwood Leisure Centre on September 18 in response to growing community concern about airborne dust in the area.
Elkview Superintendent Engineering Dan Myck explained the challenges Teck faces and what the company is doing to address it.
The first challenge he highlighted was the Natal spoil, a 400-metre high man-made mound where waste rock is dumped on a daily basis.
Elkview General Manager Don Sander said the spoil has been an issue for Teck for the past two years.
“When you’re in town and you look up at the mine site and you see dust, a good portion of the dust you actually see originates from the spoil,” he said.
Throughout the course of the day, Teck runs seven water trucks at Elkview, two of which are dedicated to reducing dust at Natal spoil.
Myck said mid-morning to mid-afternoon when thermals start to pick up is the worst for airborne dust from the spoil. To address the issue, Teck has added a new mister and is closing the upper section of the spoil by summer 2019, which Myck said should lead to an improvement in air quality.
The second challenge for Teck is the BR2 highwall. Highwall mining is a method of surface mining and Myck said BR2 is aggravated by blasts at the mine.
In an attempt to reduce dust generated by the highwall, Teck is evaluating blast practices to see if vibrations can be reduced.
It has also been using sprinklers with some success and does “floccing”, which causes a crust to form on the surface of the highwall, preventing dust from becoming airborne.
Myck said there has been a “noticeable improvement” since the worst incidents in May when residents reported black rain falling from the sky and soiling clothing and property.
Other work Teck is doing to address airborne dust includes watering work areas and making operational decisions based on wind direction.
Sander assured the crowd at the forum that the company is looking at every solution available, including microwave technology that binds dust particles together, causing them to fall to the ground.
Residents’ health not at risk from airborne dust: Teck
Sparwood residents’ health is not at risk from airborne dust, according to Teck Coal.
Speaking to The Free Press at a public forum on air quality in Sparwood last week, Teck’s Social Responsibility Manager Nic Milligan responded to health concerns related to airborne dust.
He said air quality modelling by a third party during the Baldy Ridge Extension Permit process for the Elkview coal mine showed air constituents at the various levels tested were “well below established guidelines”.
“We’ve verified that with our data in 2018 and next year we’ll have a review of that modelling, and our processes and again we’ll use data to verify that we stay below the guidelines, which are recommended guidelines for community health,” said Milligan.
“We’re well below guidelines, so our performance is good.”
Teck has eight continuous air quality monitoring stations throughout Hosmer, Sparwood, Elkford and Corbin that are maintained and verified by a qualified third party.
Another station is being installed at Sparwood Heights and will include a photographic platform for District of Sparwood cameras.
It is expected to be operational by October.
Due to its small size, particulate matter (PM) can be inhaled, triggering health problems.
Air quality regulations that aim to protect human health focus on the smallest particulate matter that is less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) or 10 microns in diameter (PM10).
PM2.5 is one of the most important outdoor air pollutants in B.C. from a human health perspective, according to the Province, which has set the daily air quality objective at micrograms per cubic metre of air (µg/m3) to 25 µg/m3 and the annual objective to 8 µg/m3. The provincial ambient air quality objective for PM10 is 50 µg/m3 over 24 hours.
Total Suspended Particulate (TSP) is also monitored to assess nuisance dusting.
According to the Elkview Operations 2017 Annual Permit PA1807 Report, only a small percentage of samples from monitoring stations near the Elkview coal mine were above provincial air quality objectives for PM2.5 and PM10 last year.
The Downtown Air Monitoring Station observed daily average concentrations above the PM2.5 objective in four samples or one per cent of its dataset and PM10 objectives in one sample (0.3 per cent).
Whispering Winds Trailer Park Air Monitoring Station observed daily average concentrations above the PM2.5 objective in 10 samples or three per cent of its dataset and did not have any concentrations above PM10 objectives.
The Michel By-Products Plant Air Monitoring Station observed daily average concentrations above PM2.5 objectives in 17 samples or five per cent of its available dataset and PM10 objectives in eight samples (three per cent).
The highest daily PM10 and PM2.5 averages occurred in the summer and fall, which Teck said was likely attributable to extended periods of hot, dry weather and forest fires in the area.
Milligan said the company is working with residents and the District to address the issue.
The September 18 public forum was prompted by concerns raised via Teck’s feedback system, which Milligan said is “well utilized”.
“We take this issue of air quality and dust very seriously, and we’re really concerned about ensuring we get it in hand and that we work with the District and the citizens to ensure good quality of life for them,” he said.
“We want to be a good neighbour ultimately.”