Skip to main content

The Alberta Energy Regulator is investigating the owner of the Grande Cache coal mine, in the western foothills of the Rocky Mountains, following two separate releases of industrial wastewater.

The company, CST Canada Coal Ltd., allegedly failed to notify the AER about the incidents immediately after they happened. The provincial energy watchdog is now in the first phase of its probe.

The AER’s handling of spills has been under public scrutiny recently, after the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation criticized it and Imperial Oil Resources Ltd. IMO-T for failing to tell them that water tainted with toxic oil sands tailings had for months been seeping off the Kearl oil sands site, north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

The first incident at the Grande Cache mine happened on Dec. 29, when about 107,000 litres of coal wash water was released from the project. Coal wash water is used to separate the fossil fuel from rocks, dirt and other impurities, and it can contain various toxic substances.

Then, on March 4, more than a million litres of coal fines – extremely small particles of coal suspended in water – were released from a settling pond at the mine into the Smoky River. The total suspended solids exceeded the company’s approved limits.

The AER told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail that, after it became aware of the second spill, investigators visited the mine to assess the impact and directed CST Coal to clean up the release and put in place continuing monitoring and testing of the surrounding environment.

The regulator said CST Coal is working to determine the cause of the spills, and is required to submit a release prevention plan to prevent similar incidents in the future. It added that there are currently no reported impacts on the public or wildlife.

The federal Environment Department did not respond to questions about whether it is investigating the spills, or had been informed of them.

CST Coal told the AER that it had contacted stakeholders, including nearby Indigenous communities, to inform them of both incidents. The AER itself also reached out to stakeholders following the second spill, the regulator said.

Aseniwuche Winewak Nation, whose territory extends across land by the mine and the Smoky River, could not immediately confirm whether or not it had been contacted about the spills. The municipal district of Greenview, which includes Grande Cache, declined to say whether it had been informed.

The company said in an e-mail that it is cooperating with AER investigators and has complied with all of the regulator’s requests to date.

CST Coal took over ownership of the metallurgical coal mine in 2018, after the former owners, Grande Cache Coal, went into receivership.

The highest fine imposed on a coal company under Canada’s Fisheries Act, which governs contamination of waterways, was in March, 2021, when Teck Coal Ltd. was ordered to pay a total of $60-million in fines and monetary court orders after it pleaded guilty to two offences.

The charges stemmed from an investigation by the Environment Department, which revealed that Teck’s operations were depositing harmful coal mine waste rock leachate into the upper Fording River in B.C.