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What’s in that dust drifting off coal mines in the Elk Valley?

That’s a question Wyatt Petryshen, Wildsight’s mining policy and impacts researcher, set out to answer. He undertook a comprehensive study of airborne dust coming from mountaintop coal mines in the Elk Valley. While extensive research has been done on the negative impacts mine effluent has on aquatic ecosystems, research on air quality impacts has lagged.

Petryshen’s research discovered elevated concentrations of selenium, silver, germanium, nickel, uranium, vanadium, and zirconium, with higher levels increasing the closer the samples were to the mines. Dust produced during mining operations drifts into the air and is transported and deposited throughout the landscape, facilitated by regional winds and local topography.

“This work is especially relevant as Canada and BC look to expand critical mineral mining, renewing our need for better risk assessment and mitigation strategies to protect community health and the environment,” says Petryshen. “The implications of this study are significant as it demonstrates the extent and spatial distribution of contaminants originating from fugitive dust emissions surrounding mountaintop mines and some of the controls to its distribution in mountain regions.”

The research was based on analyzing elemental concentrations in moss samples gathered from 19 locations surrounding the Elkview Mine and the town of Sparwood. Moss samples were found on the ground, on deadfall, in tree stumps and within the tall, sparse grasses that grow in the Elk Valley.

Moss biomonitoring is a widely used technique dating back to the 1970s. It’s a cost-effective and relatively easy-to-use methodology because researchers can assess multiple elements and can constrain timeframes of contamination to the last 2–3 years. Moss absorbs atmospheric pollution directly into its tissue, acting like a sponge for contaminants.

As Canada’s largest metallurgical coal-producing region, the Elk Valley has documented multiple water contamination issues from the mines. Mountaintop removal coal mining has also been associated with health impacts for people living nearby, including significantly higher rates of morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular, kidney, respiratory, and dental disease, as well as higher rates of cancer.

Air quality monitoring stations at five locations in the Elk Valley currently monitor particulates, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone; however, there is currently no recurring environmental monitoring of heavy metals that may be spread through the air. Petryshen says he is optimistic that this study will launch further investigations into the concerning spread of dust from Elk Valley mines.

“I am hopeful that future work will continue to explore how dust emissions from mountaintop mines are transported and deposited in mountainous regions, and how implementing new mitigation strategies for different aspects of the mining, processing, and transport process can reduce environmental and community exposure to fugitive dust emissions.”

Photos: Alec Underwood

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