What's in Sparwood coal mine dust?

Photo: Alec Underwood

In Sparwood, dust from the nearby coal mine sometimes drifts over the town, coating everything in fine black powder and leaving some residents concerned about what they’re breathing in. But what exactly is in that dust? The answer may come from a surprising source: moss.

Wildsight’s own Wyatt Petryshen has just published a peer-reviewed study using samples of moss taken from around the Elkview coal mine that sits just above Sparwood to find out what exactly is in that dust. His results show that not only selenium, but also uranium, vanadium, germanium, nickel, silver and zirconium are being carried in dust at least 30km from the mine before falling to the ground and being taken up by moss growing on the forest floor.

Slow-growing mosses absorb contaminants directly from the dust that falls on them, acting like a sponge for heavy metals and other elements. Analysis of the moss samples from 19 locations in Wyatt’s study gave him insights into dust contamination over the last two-to-three years. Instead of measuring dust from the air directly with just a few samples, which can vary from day to day and even hour to hour, using moss gives a better picture of average contamination levels over a few years.

Wyatt collecting a moss sample near the Elkview Mine. Photo by Gryphen Goss.

It’s well known that contaminated water flowing downstream from the Elk Valley’s mountaintop-removal coal mines affects fish hundreds of kilometers downstream, but there’s little research on the coal and rock dust sent up into the air, mostly from blasting. Wyatt’s study is an early step towards understanding the problem and raises the alarm about potential health impacts from heavy metals found in the dust that locals in Sparwood breathe in.

The health impacts of the Elk Valley coal mines haven’t been studied in depth, but research from other regions has shown that people living near mountaintop-removal coal mines have significantly higher death rates from cancer and heart, kidney, and lung diseases. Airborne dust is without a doubt a major factor.

While Wyatt’s study doesn’t look directly at health impacts, it’s a first step that establishes some key facts: dust is travelling significant distances from the Elkview mine and that dust contains heavy metals. While air quality monitoring stations in the area provide data on particulates, NOx and ozone, there’s no public data on heavy metals in the coal mining dust in the Elk Valley. Wyatt’s hope is that his study will help launch more detailed study by others to look into the coal mining dust and the health risks of breathing it in.

Elkview mine, just outside Sparwood. Photo: Alec Underwood.

Wyatt also looked at the patterns of how dust moves throughout the Rocky Mountains around the Elkview mine, a complex issues as prevailing winds running through mountain ridges concentrate dust in some areas and leave others relatively dust-free. Last year, Alberta scientists found pollution from mine dust in sediment samples from Window Mountain Lake, a small lake on the other side of the Continental Divide from the Elk Valley coal mines. Their study found high selenium levels and hydrocarbons from coal at thirty times background levels.

In Wyatt’s study, selenium was found in moss near the Elkview and Line Creek mines at up to six times the concentration found in moss from a reference site in Fernie. Heavy metals like uranium, vanadium, nickel and silver were found at up to three to four times more than at the reference site. Further study is needed to find out which kinds of contamination might be coming from blasting or moving rock and which kinds might be coming from coal processing or even burning diesel.

Of course, we already know that fine particulates, NOx and other air pollution from the mines can also harm our health — and the environment.

While we can’t reach any conclusions about health risks from this study alone, it’s certainly clear that we need a lot more research to make sure the people who live near and work at the Elk Valley coal mines aren’t in danger.

Selenium contamination results from Wyatt’s study.

See Wyatt’s full study in Heliyon.

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