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Selenium Open House

Lisa Sygutek

Jun 19, 2024

Last Wednesday I attended an open house about selenium and modern-day coal extraction. It was informative and science based, and I have no fear that once a mine is approved in the valley the selenium can, and will, be safely mitigated. 

Heading up the discussion was Guy Gilron, a senior environmental scientist from Borealis Environmental. With 35 years of experience in ecotoxicology and environmental risk assessment he explained in layman terms how modern-day mining and selenium mitigation work together.

Coal mining has been an integral part of industrial growth, providing energy and economic benefits for decades. However, the legacy issues associated with old mines, particularly concerning selenium contamination, pose significant environmental and health challenges. Selenium, a naturally occurring element, can become highly concentrated through mining activities, leading to potentially harmful effects on aquatic ecosystems and human health. Addressing these issues at legacy sites, and ensuring new mines adopt sustainable practices, is critical to balancing economic growth with environmental stewardship.

Many older coal mines were established long before environmental regulations became stringent. As a result, they often lack adequate measures to control selenium runoff. Selenium leaches from waste rock and tailings, entering nearby waterways and accumulating in aquatic organisms. This bio-accumulation can cause reproductive issues in fish and other wildlife, disrupting entire ecosystems.

To mitigate these impacts, many legacy mines have implemented water treatment plants. These facilities use various methods, such as ion exchange, reverse osmosis, and bioreactors, to remove selenium from contaminated water before it is discharged. While these treatments are effective, they are also costly and require ongoing maintenance and monitoring. The challenge lies in ensuring that these measures are both effective and sustainable over the long term, especially as funding and political support can fluctuate.

In contrast, new coal mines are subject to rigorous environmental standards that mandate the implementation of advanced mitigation strategies from the outset. One such strategy is the use of passive treatment systems, like constructed wetlands, which utilize natural processes to filter out selenium. These systems are more sustainable and cost-effective over the long term compared to active treatment plants.

Additionally, modern mines are increasingly employing real-time monitoring technologies to detect selenium levels and respond promptly to any contamination. This proactive approach helps prevent selenium from reaching harmful concentrations, thus protecting local water resources and eco-systems. Companies are also exploring innovative techniques, such as microbial reduction and phytoremediation, which use plants and micro-organisms to absorb and immobilize selenium.

Despite these advancements, some individuals remain sceptical of the science behind selenium mitigation. This scepticism often stems from a fear of change and a lack of understanding of the complex science involved. Overcoming these fears requires effective communication and education efforts, emphasizing the benefits of modern mining practices and the potential for economic and environmental coexistence. 

Through conversations with professionals, similar to what took place at the Elk’s Hall last Wednesday, perhaps fears can be alleviated. For some, however, it won’t ever matter what is said, they are steadfast in their beliefs. 

Coal mining continues to be a significant economic driver, providing jobs and contributing to our local, provincial and national GDP. The development of new mines can stimulate local economies, create employment opportunities, and enhance infrastructure. Companies that invest in innovative selenium mitigation technologies not only protect the environment but also ensure their continued social license to operate. This dual approach can foster community support and attract investment, further bolstering economic growth. 

We all want lower residential taxes here in the Crowsnest Pass. Presently our community tax base consists of 84% residential taxes with small business picking up the remaining 16%. The only way to lower residential taxes is through industry. We need industry in this area. We are a community built on coal mining and I truly believe coal mining is the industry that can change that tax ratio.

Changing entrenched attitudes towards coal mining and environmental science is a formidable challenge. Some individuals and groups remain resistant to change, clinging to outdated views or distrusting scientific evidence. This resistance is often rooted in fear, fear of economic loss, fear of environmental collapse, or simply fear of the unknown.

Addressing these concerns requires a concerted effort to bridge the divide between different perspectives. Open dialogue, transparency, and community engagement are essential. By involving local communities in decision-making processes and demonstrating the tangible benefits of modern mining practices, it is possible to build trust and foster a more informed and supportive public.

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