Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

A conveyor belt transports coal at the Westmoreland Coal Company's Sheerness Mine near Hanna, Alta. on Dec. 13, 2016. Coal mines can be environmentally safe and can become useful, enjoyable landscapes when the seam runs out, say scientists working with industry.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Coal mines can be environmentally safe and can become useful, enjoyable landscapes when the seam runs out, say scientists working with industry.

But they admit that there are risks and costs, and urge communities and miners to work together from the start to understand and minimize them.

“There’s a lot of mitigative measures you can take when you’re designing a mine,” said Guy Gilron, a biologist and toxicologist who has worked on many mine projects, including some proposed for Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.

Story continues below advertisement

Gord McKenna, a Calgary-based geotechnical engineer, said mines can become attractive and useful landscapes — as long as people don’t expect them to look the same as they did before.

“We can make landscapes that are pretty good,” he said. “It’s not always put back to the same land uses. [But] if we don’t overpromise, I think mines can meet what they set out to do.”

The United Conservative government is looking to increase surface coal mining on the foothills and summits of the Rocky Mountains. Plans from several companies covering tens of thousands of hectares have caused widespread concern over potential contamination and destruction of much-loved landscapes.

Mr. Gilron said modern mines are designed to reduce the release of contaminants such as selenium, which is toxic in excess and is released as it oxidizes from waste rock. Mr. Gilron said less is released if that rock is covered.

“If you cover that waste rock with water or with backfill — the engineers use a special paste to cement it back in place — you reduce the amount of selenium that goes into water.”

Bacteria in the water then reduce the selenium to a form that plants and animals can’t absorb, Mr. Gilron said.

He points to at least six examples of where so-called end-pit lakes have been used successfully to bring selenium well below dangerous levels. Sphinx Lake, near Hinton, Alta., is an example of an artificial lake used to treat selenium, he said.

Story continues below advertisement

Golder Associates, an international environmental consultancy, published a 2020 report on selenium reduction technology in 30 locations across North America.

“Various industry sectors are investing in selenium treatment technology and making progress in performance,” it said. “Some technologies have multiple successful full-scale installations.”

The report includes caveats.

“Selenium treatment technologies have not reached full maturity and should still be regarded as developmental,” it says.

It also suggests that Canadian coal mines that contain high levels of selenium are “challenging” to mitigate.

Mr. Gilron said it can be done.

Story continues below advertisement

“You don’t see it as much of an issue in new mines where they’ve had a chance to engineer and treat waste rock in a way to avoid the selenium getting into water bodies.”

Mr. McKenna said that part of the problem in reclamation is that mining companies are pressured during the regulatory process to promise more than they can actually deliver.

“Right now, the mines promise the world — and the regulators require them to promise the world — to get their first permit. They promise what is possible rather than what is deliverable.”

It’s crucial to make a distinction between restoration and reclamation, he said.

“You can never put all the dirt back in the hole again.

“We ought not to be promising restoration. We ought to be promising pretty good reclamation.”

Story continues below advertisement

People also need to understand that a reclaimed coal mine will have to be monitored for many decades to ensure it’s stable and behaving as desired.

“To think we’re going to build these landscapes [that] cover many square kilometres, we’re going to get that perfect the first time and after 10, 20 years we can walk away, kind of makes no sense. We’re going to manage these lands for a long, long time.”

Mr. McKenna said the key to building a mine that can be satisfactorily reclaimed is consultation with communities and other users right from the start.

“They’re part of the decision-making, which is tough for mines to give up. We’ve got to stop building these landscapes for the local people and start building them with the local people.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies