Quinsam Coal Mine operations have not increased arsenic levels in nearby Long Lake, says the Ministry of Environment.
According to a letter from provincial Environment Minister Murray Coell to city council, ministry staff have determined the mine is not solely responsible for the contaminant and also believe an expansion by Quinsam Coal would not have miners going into a much higher sulfur-content coal seam.
Dr. William Cullen, who studied Quinsam Coal operations and the impact an expansion – into an area called 7-South – would have on the environment, said in a report that mining in that area would mean a shift from a low-sulfur content coal to a higher-sulfur coal and would introduce more contaminants into the Quinsam River system. Coell’s letter rejected that notion.
“To date, the mine has developed a number of coal seams and areas with varying levels of sulphur content. The 7-South Mine area appears to have a sulphur content within the range previously mined,” said Coell in his letter.
Cullen and a coalition of local environmental groups also have concerns about the storage of rejects, or waste product, from the expansion site. The potentially acid generating rejects could leak into the river system if not stored properly.
Coell said the mine is already dealing with similar rejects and has been safely storing them underwater in flooded pits.
“Portions of the coarse coal waste from the current operation were determine to be potentially acid generating and have been disposed of in accordance with guidelines utilized by the Ministry of Natural Resource Operations. The company is expected to propose to dispose of any future potentially acid-generating coarse coal from the 7-South Mine in a similar matter,” said Coell.
Campbell River environmental groups have long been concerned about the water quality of Long Lake.
But Coell said arsenic levels in the lake are within the province’s Water Quality Objectives and Guidelines for drinking water and for protection of aquatic life. He said ministry staff studied fish in Long Lake in 2007 and determined the fish population and health was comparable to that found in nearby lakes.
“The ministry acknowledges that data indicate Long Lake sediment arsenic levels have increased from those that existed prior to the mine,” said Coell. “However it is important to recognize that sediment arsenic levels in Long Lake were well above the British Columbia Interim Sediment Quality Guidelines prior to mining. The local geology is rich in arsenic and, as a result, Long Lake and numerous other lakes and streams in the area contain elevated arsenic levels.”
Coell also addressed the environmental group’s concerns over a possible arsenic release from sediment into the water column if Long Lake becomes eutrophic (high productivity, high nutrients). He said the ministry does not believe the lake, which is of low productivity and low nutrients, is at risk of eutrophication due to the mine’s operation but added nutrient levels will continue to be monitored in the lake and in the mine’s discharges. Hillsborough Resources, operator of Quinsam Coal, is currently amending its expansion application to the province and the ministry has yet to receive an updated version.