Alberta regulator never inspected berm that burst at Obed mine toxic tailings pond, resulting in largest coal slurry spill in Canada

Province never inspected berm that burst at Obed mine tailings pond by Sheila Pratt, February 27, 2014, Edmonton Journal
The berm around the Obed mine coal tailings pond that failed last fall had not been inspected by the province because it was not classified as a dam, a public forum at the University of Alberta was told Thursday. The berm broke Oct. 31, 2013, sending a wall of water, mud and fine coal particles out of the tailings pond in the largest coal slurry spill in Canada. The spill over ran the banks of two small creeks and left a layer of muddy, contaminated sediment in the creeks and along the banks for five kilometres and ran into the Athabasca River.

At the public forum, U of A water scientists presented the results of their review of mine owner Sherritt’s cleanup plans — a review requested by Alberta Environment in an effort to get and independent review and “the best science” to guide the cleanup. [Why didn’t Alberta Environment and the ERCB request this after Encana broke the law and fractured Rosebud’s drinking water aquifers?] In response to a question about inspection reports on the berm around the tailings pond, Alberta Environment said no such reports exist as the structure was not classified as a dam and therefore “not subject to regular testing.“ That raised a red flag for some at the forum. Peter Fortuna of Fort McMurray asked if there was a list identifying which structures are considered dams “so we can know in our community” what is being inspected.

Sherritt’s John Schadan, vice-president of operations, said later that the company inspected the berm regularly and found no warning signs. It is too early to say how or why the berm burst — that is still under investigation, he added. Alberta Environment later said to be classified as a dam, the structure must be 2.5 metres high and have the capacity to store 30,000 cubic metres of water, and they require licence. The height of the Sherritt berm was not available. Alberta Environment and Sherritt are looking at how to contain the contaminated slurry that is frozen under ice and snow, stopping the flow into the Athabasca River but with the spring melt approaching. Cleanup crews will go in with shovels to try to dig out as much as possible of the sediment on the riverbed and banks of the two creeks, he said. In places where the coal tailings mixed into mud on the riverbed, there can be a buildup of heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic, he added. Sherritt has spent tens of millions of dollars on the cleanup, Schadan said. Sherritt sold the mine to Colorado-based coal giant Westmoreland Coal Company which will take over at the end of March, though Sherritt will remain involved in the cleanup, Schadan said. [Emphasis added]

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