Alberta, New Brunswick waterways tainted with huge coal dust and toxic chemical spills

Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station in New Brunswick.Albertans must be feeling under siege from the very resources that have made the province prosperous.

Residents living near the Athabasca River near Hinton, Alta., are being warned not to drink the water after a coal-mine waste-containment pond failed on Halloween night.

The breach at the closed Obed Mountain Coal Ltd. operation, 30 kilometres east of Hinton, leaked a billion litres of coal dust-laced water into the Athabasca via two tributaries, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator's news release.

That's the equivalent of about 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The incident follows a a series of pipeline breaks and train derailments that have resulted in oil spills and an explosion involving propane-laden tank cars.

[ Related: Alberta toxic waste spill could be biggest North American environmental disaster in recent history ]

Residents of 10 communities downstream from the coal-waste spill have been warned not to draw water from the river or allow their livestock to drink from it, the Edmonton Journal reported.

Most get their drinking water from wells, though the city of Fort McMurray, the town of Athabasca and the hamlet of Smith, draw directly from the river, the Journal said.

The mine, owned by Sherritt International, is undergoing reclamation. A Sherritt employee told the Journal the material in the pit is inert and not dangerous to people or wildlife.

Nonetheless, Athabasca Mayor Roger Morrill told the Journal the town has shut off its water supply from the river.

Initial tests do not show the spill poses any health risk, Alberta Environment said, according to the Journal.

Still, critics were quick to jump on the government for not warning residents until several days after the breach was detected.

“I think government’s response is more proof that it can’t be trusted to act in the public’s best interest,” NDP environment critic Rachel Notley said, according to the Journal.

“Why, with a billion-litre spill, was there a delay here? This is gargantuan, and these are not organic compounds. Coal waste includes a number of toxic compounds. [Government’s] handling of this is grossly irresponsible.”

[ Related: Residents of Alberta hamlet near train derailment allowed home after 4 days ]

Wildrose party critic Joe Anglin said the incident was preventable and inexcusable.

“We are seeing a real negative trend when it comes to train derailments and leaks, whether from pipelines or containment facilities," he said. "It shouldn’t happen if there is regular maintenance and monitoring.

“The company will take the blame, but where was the government oversight? This thing didn’t just break overnight. We should have seen it coming.”

The regulator said mines are inspected once a year or more often if there are problems, calling such breaches very rare.

Meanwhile, residents living near a New Brunswick's only nuclear power plant were warned about a spill of contaminated water into the Bay of Fundy.

NB Power's Point Lepreau power station released water containing toxic hydrazine from a valve on the non-nuclear of the plant on Sunday, CBC News reported. The chemical is used to remove oxygen from the water in steam generators to protect them from corrosion.

NB Power said in a news release Monday that the spill was detected through daily monitoring at a sampling point on station property. Further testing showed the chemical had dissipated below detectable levels, the company said.

[ Related: Point Lepreau leaks toxic chemical into Bay of Fundy ]

"NB Power will continue to monitor the area and take additional samples," Claire Harris the plant's manager of health, safety and environment, said. "Following a thorough investigation, NB Power will determine the appropriate measures to implement and prevent recurrence."

CBC News noted the Point Lepreau plant had a hydrazine spill two years ago, when 23 barrels of water containing the chemical spilled into the bay. The federal Nuclear Safety Commission called that spill "unsettling."