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News Release: 4 Years After Obed Spill, Questions Remain

October 31, 2017

Four Years Later: Many Questions, Few Answers Following Alberta’s Largest Tailings Spill Disaster
October 31, 2017

On October 31, 2013, a catastrophic dam failure caused a massive tailings spill from Obed Mountain Mine into the Athabasca River – an event that remains one of the largest environmental disasters in Alberta’s history. Now four years later, questions regarding the operation and regulation of tailings ponds in Alberta remain.

The guilt of the operator, Prairie Mines & Royalty ULC, was acknowledged and punished on June 9, 2017 with fines of $4.5 million, plus clean up costs. However, the role of the regulator (currently the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER)) remains largely unanswered for.

The failed dam was approved in 1996. The AER’s Investigation Summary Report (2017) revealed that the then-regulator, Alberta Energy and Sustainable Development, did not follow up on the structure. If they had, they would have found that the structure had been built incorrectly and in the wrong location. Additionally, inspectors from the AER were at the mine less than a month before the spill, yet they did not notice or report that the water level of the tailings pond was over four metres higher than the maximum allowed level.The AER also reported that another dam in the same Obed tailings pond was built incorrectly and almost failed in 2002, but there is no mention in the report as to whether this dam has been brought in line with design specifications.

“These findings beg the question: can the AER assure Albertans that there are not similar defects in other tailings ponds around the province?” says Nick Pink of Alberta Wilderness Association. “The AER has released the location and quantities of the tailings facilities they regulate but greater transparency about the findings of completed inspections and audits would be reassuring for the public.”

“Given that there are more than one hundred tailings facilities in Alberta – some with over 1000 times the capacity of the impoundment at Obed – we need to know that proper care and due-diligence is being taken by the regulator,” says Nick Pink. “It’s been 4 years and we’re not convinced the AER has taken the appropriate steps to prevent a similar disaster from occurring in the future.”

On October 31, 2013, coal mine wastes breached an earth berm at the Obed Mountain Mine, near Hinton, Alberta. Approximately 670 million litres of water containing tonnes of sediment and coal fines flowed into the Apetowun and Plante creeks. These tributaries are important habitat for threatened native Athabasca rainbow trout and bull trout. As the resulting plume of contaminated water entered the Athabasca River and flowed down-stream, the Alberta government advised communities not to withdraw water from the river and advised livestock producers to keep livestock from drinking river water.

On June 9, Prairie Mines & Royalty ULC pled guilty to federal and provincial charges, and was fined $4.5 million plus cleanup costs, for the 2013 coal tailings spill.

Due to ongoing investigation, important details about the spill were withheld from the public until sentencing earlier this year. As a settlement was reached, details surrounding the incident are limited to an “Agreed Statement of Facts” and a brief Investigation Summary Report (2017) by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

For more information:
Nick Pink, Conservation Specialist, Alberta Wilderness Association, (403) 283-2025

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.
- Wallace Stegner
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