Alberta's selenium review now complete as environmental groups worry about next steps

·3 min read
A file photo of a bighorn sheep spotted in Kananaskis Country. Some herds of bighorn sheep in Alberta were heavily contaminated with selenium from old coal mines, according to a retired government scientist. (Alberta Parks - image credit)
A file photo of a bighorn sheep spotted in Kananaskis Country. Some herds of bighorn sheep in Alberta were heavily contaminated with selenium from old coal mines, according to a retired government scientist. (Alberta Parks - image credit)

In May 2021, Jeff Kneteman, a retired senior government biologist, told The Canadian Press that some herds of bighorn sheep in Alberta were heavily contaminated with selenium from old coal mines.

At the time, Kneteman said Alberta Environment hadn't commissioned any studies, adding that two herds in northwest Alberta tested outside the safe range for selenium, with one almost doubling those levels.

Since that time, Kneteman said he hasn't seen much in the way of progress.

"The regulatory system has basically obscured the selenium risk and possible consequences of that," Kneteman said.

Selenium, a natural element found in the environment and often released by coal mining, is vital to health but is toxic in excess, and can lower reproductive success. It has been linked to mass deaths of westslope cutthroat trout.

Alberta review complete

Both the provincial and federal governments are weighing potential future moves when it comes to managing selenium.

Alberta launched a selenium management review last summer. That review, the province says, is now complete.

It is intended to examine Alberta's current regulatory requirements, comparing those to the policy tools being used in comparable jurisdictions.

"We have heard from Albertans regarding their concerns about selenium and the need for the province's industries to better manage the element," said Jason Penner, a spokesperson with Alberta Environment and Parks, in an email.

"Alberta will continue to strengthen its oversight of selenium management and continues to engage with Environment and Climate Change Canada on incoming federal coal mining effluent regulations."

Stephen Glendinning/Submitted by Brian Keating
Stephen Glendinning/Submitted by Brian Keating

The federal government launched a review on coal mining effluent regulations last year.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) says due to the number of comments received and the need for additional engagement, the results of the review will likely be released after the previously announced target of late 2022.

It's expected the final regulations will be in place about a year after that. Any public updates in regards to Alberta's provincial policies will follow the release of the federal regulations, Penner said.

Concerns over federal regulations

But the federal government's discussion document for draft regulations has drawn criticism from environmental groups and other critics.

The proposed rules could see mines allowed to release twice as much selenium.

"The existence of those thresholds sort of perpetuates the idea that we can treat our waterways and our ecosystem sort of like a receiver for pollution," said Phillip Meintzer, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

"We're essentially enabling the pollution by saying, yeah, you can get polluted up to this value. Which is not what these ecosystems were meant for — they weren't designed to tolerate massive amounts of pollutants or metal."

Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press
Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

Becky Best-Bertwistle, the conservation program manager with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), also raised concerns over the draft document's approach to industry. Critics have said the federal government bowed to provincial and industry lobbying.

"A lot of problems are coming up with these regulations, specifically because industry can't manage selenium effectively right now," she said.

"That's a really backwards way to approach environment regulation. Environmental regulations should, of course, be created to protect the environment. They should not be created by what industry thinks they can achieve."

The Mining Association of Canada, meanwhile, said in March that the draft documents were still too strict, adding the association did "not see a path to achieving those limits."

In a statement, a spokesperson with ECCC said it was expected that the regulations will include a requirement for a five-year status report on selenium effluent quality standards, with a review of regulations as a whole after 10 years.

"The regulatory reviews would take into account the results of environmental effects monitoring (including the observed impacts of the standards on species at risk), and advances in selenium treatment technologies and would inform future policy development and possible amendments," said Isabelle Maheu in an email.

In 2020, the province scrapped a 1976 policy that limited coal development in Alberta. Though the rules have since been put back in place, extensive coal exploration took place in the meantime, which has left a significant environmental impact.