Toxic Organic Contaminants

A new Alberta study claims that the Elk Valley coal mines are spreading toxic organic contaminants and potentially effecting ecosystems. The new study concludes, “Coal dust is clearly being transported atmospherically over the Continental Divide and deposited far from the emission sources.” In Sparwood, coal dust sometimes coats everything in a fine black powder.

While selenium leaching into the watershed is well-documented and being mitigated at great expense, the spread of toxic coal dust downwind into ecosystems and communities has been relatively undocumented.

Conducted by researchers from the Alberta government and the University of Alberta, the study, recently published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, reveals that quantities of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs), toxic organic contaminants, are transported atmospherically and deposited in regional snowpacks.

Sampling from sites three to 60km downwind of the coal mines showed snowpack PAC concentrations ranging from 29 to 94,866 nanograms per liter. Snowpack PAC loads, adjusted for snow depth, were significantly higher near the mines, reaching over 15,000 micrograms per square meter at one site.

Toxic Organic Contaminants

The study demonstrated a clear spatial pattern, with PAC loads decreasing with distance from the mines. The compositional fingerprint of PACs closely matched coal from the Elk River valley, indicating the mines as the pollution source. Modeling suggested that the pollution footprint extends across western Canada and the northwestern United States. This finding is critical for ecosystems and communities near the mines, which are exposed to elevated levels of air pollution containing PACs.

The Elk River valley mines contribute significantly to Canada’s metallurgical coal exports, but the environmental costs are substantial. Besides transforming entire watersheds, mining operations release coal dust and other contaminants into the atmosphere, affecting regions far from the source. This study’s results underscore the need for more comprehensive environmental assessments and regulatory measures to mitigate the impact of coal mining on air and water quality.

Toxic Organic Contaminants

Polycyclic aromatic compounds are hazardous due to their potential to cause cancer, genetic mutations, and other health issues. They are also environmentally persistent and can bioaccumulate, posing long-term risks to ecosystems and human health. Effective regulatory measures and personal protective actions are essential to mitigate their impact.

Reports from around the world have consistently found that communities downwind of open-pit coal mining have, as the new study notes, “documented increased rates of lung cancer mortality, cardiovascular disease, frequency of birth defects, and reduced quality of life.”

Photographs of late winter snowpits (A, B) and late spring snowpack (C, D). (A) Near site GH-SE-3 in the Elk River valley, where clear black coal dust depositional layers are present (photo: K. Holland, March 15, 2023). (B) At site FR-E-10, where high snowfall amounts dilute PAC deposition (photo: C. Cooke, March 14, 2023). (C) Looking toward FR-E-10 and (D) at FR-E-10 in spring (both photos: S. Campbell, May 31, 2022).

Wildsight previously published a peer-reviewed study using samples of moss taken from around the Elkview coal mine. They concluded that they need a lot more research to make sure the people who live near and work at the Elk Valley coal mines aren’t in danger.

The new findings highlight the necessity for thorough air quality monitoring as coal dust is clearly evident throughout the region.

Photos: ACS Publications

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