December 2nd, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 48
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
The Other Side of the Coin
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Elaborate fish fence with rotating panels and upstream and downstream fykes
For thirty years plus I worked as a mining technician at the Line Creek Coal Mine in the Upper Elk Valley. That’s a long time to spend in one place working but I have absolutely no regrets about it and in fact am very proud of my service there. Throughout those thirty years I had occasion to observe how my coal mine conducted itself environmentally up high in the Rocky Mountains.

It has occurred to me that many are not aware of the level of monitoring and effort that goes into the due diligence required to stay within or exceed government permit parameters at a British Columbia coal mine. These days, especially as the on-going Grassy Mountain review panel process proceeds, it appears that the whole industry is being painted with an enormous, dismissive brush. That dirty business called coal mining. It did not escape my notice that several of the objectors chose to characterize this industry, and all of us who have worked or are working in it, that way.

I, along with many others, have taken personal offense to this holier-than-thou judgment of an industry that is the very basis for why we are all here today. The hand wringing and gnashing of teeth about the supposed or potential effects of Grassy are being played upon to the extreme by parties with agendas so singularly focused that it is stunning. No one appears to be standing up for the miners. It hurts my heart and it offends my three generation long coal mining past.
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I thought, as an aside from this continual circus of nay-sayers, that I might share with you, the readers, some positive and reaffirming environmental history of some of my observations and experiences through those thirty plus years I spent at Line Creek.

Let’s start back at the beginning, in 1981, as the mine was preparing to come on line. The care taken to construct an access road to the coal measures east of the towering Wisukitsak Range, through the spectacular canyon that Line Creek passes through was of the first order. Bin walls were constructed to maintain the integrity of the creek in several places and 7 strategic bridges were built over it. Every care was taken to ensure no disturbance of this important migratory site occurred

Line Creek canyon has been the nesting home for centuries of what we used to call Dolly Varden but are now in fact referred to as Bull Trout. In the beginning the mine constructed a spectacular fish fence at the canyon entrance with upstream and downstream fykes for trapping and monitoring of these massive members of the Salmonidae family. In the early years of the mine’s operation they were systematically caught, weighed, measured and with the females, an egg sample taken before releasing them to make their way upstream. It was not unusual to see specimens as large as 13 pounds being surveyed before they were sent on their way.
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In the middle of the canyon the females, to this day, select redd sites and excavate nests that I could readily see and check from the roadway above. Mountain whitefish and Westslope cutthroat trout also reside in Line Creek.

The canyon was an ancient travel route for the Ktunaxa and earlier peoples as they made their way east out onto the prairies to hunt the bison. Ancient pictographs were strategically extracted in the construction phase from the canyon’s west entrance and preserved in Victoria. Throughout the thirty years I worked there the integrity and clarity of this creek and its inhabitants was strictly maintained. On several occasions I observed harlequin ducks and mergansers surfing the rapids of the creek, a certain sign of the creeks health. Mountain goats regularly come down into the canyon still to a small sulphurous salt lick at the creek’s edge and I have observed hoary marmots near the snow shed on several occasions.
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On the upper reaches of the creek near the mine site a complex series of settling ponds were installed, some of which are still maintained to this day. Turbidity is monitored carefully and any notable increase results in creek diversion into a stepped series of contingency ponds where flocculent stations are used to precipitate out sediments. Most times Line Creek flows clear and clean. It is a matter of pride that is does so, by all concerned.

Through my three decades of working in and around the mine site I had hundreds of occasions to observe wildlife movements. Elk herds regularly move through the area with their calves and some even calve within the mine property. It’s a safe place. The bighorn sheep are for the most part unperturbed by our presence and wander about the site and bed down wherever it suites them. I observed and photographed, on several occasions, two separate groups of thirteen each of bighorn rams of all ages on the march. All employees of Line Creek during my tenure there considered themselves part of the environmental watch force, took pride in that and reported on and helped maintain the stability of the system there.

In later years I was tasked with building a soil farm, a bermed enclosure designed to receive, contain and treat any contaminated materials. A fuel spill of any size must be reported by the Mines Act and then cleaned up and transported to the farm for treatment. Once its toxicity is neutralized, by periodic sampling, it is moved out so that the farm will be ready for another potential event.
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In 2005 I was also directly involved in a classic reclamation project down at the preparation plant site on the west side of the canyon. Line Creek coal is washed to strict specifications at that Elk Valley plant and in the process refuse (waste rock) is created and stockpiled nearby. Once the final section of the smaller north side refuse dump reached its maximum capacity it was deemed ready for additional resloping and reseeding. The process had been ongoing since 1987. The reclamation job entailed a systematic cutting of the dump faces down from the natural angle of repose which is 37 degrees to a gentler 26 degrees. Once ready the whole sloped and flattened top surfaces were covered with top soil to facilitate reseeding. 60,000 cubic meters of top soil were used to reclaim 57 hectares. The final product received a 2008 citation from the government for the work on this dump.

The dump preparation process went into early fall that year and when all was ready the unique Line Creek reseeding truck (hydro seeder) was brought into action. It is equipped with a giant mixing tank and a large directable nozzle that someone mans like a fireman does on the end of a ladder truck. The mixing tank is a blend of water, fertilizer and a special seed mix. Several dozen bags of each are required for each batch and the tanker must return periodically to top up water at a fire hydrant. The whole area to be reclaimed is literally painted in this green growing mix.

A typical seed mix can include the following; Mix #8 (for elevations of 1900m or lower) includes the following species: “alfalfa, intermediate wheatgrass, alsike clover, boreal creeping fescue, chinook orchard grass, meadow foxtail, hard fescue, climax timothy, Canada bluegrass and red top.” As you approach the Line Creek property these days and cross over the Elk River Bridge this very successful effort comes into view. It is not unusual to see dozens of elk grazing on this southwest facing slope in the fall and early spring. It is now considered prime wildlife (Elk) winter range and is a logical end result of adhering to good reclamation practice.

The mine is required to submit an annual updated reclamation plan that shows planned areas of restoration right through to closure. This includes resloping and reseeding, pulling out all the infrastructure, stabilizing and rock draining drainage systems, maintaining settling ponds and tree planting. Seeding is done by helicopter, hydro seeder and by hand. Trees are hand planted and this work is contracted out. White caps are put on the seedlings for 3 years to protect them from being eaten by the wildlife.

The mine has different prescriptions of trees, shrubs and grasses they use depending on the site objectives which could be wildlife habitat, wildlife winter range, riparian habitat etc. Tree species can include Engelmann Spruce, Lodgepole Pine, Douglas Fir, Alpine Larch and Cottonwood. Shrubs can include trembling aspen, alder, willow, kinnikinnick, saskatoon, juniper and dogwood.

Since 1996 Line Creek has delivered its raw coal to the plant on a 10 ½ kilometer long covered conveyor through the canyon. There are no less than 13 wildlife crossings, overpasses and underpasses to accommodate the wildlife that move in and around it.

So this is just a quick peek at one man’s story of working in a coal mine environment and working to maintain the environment in a coal mine. We need to be mindful that there is a genuine and workable process for coal mining and après mining restoration in the Rocky Mountains.


Author’s Note: The former Luscar Mine near Hinton, Alberta has had to date over 1,300 hectares – an area larger than 2,400 football fields- reclaimed. View it from the air in Google earth and you will find almost nothing but a vast verdant grassy terrain and small pit lakes. Be sure to check out the online for lots more pictures.
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December 2nd, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 48
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