The governments of both Hay River and the Northwest Territories are still tracking the plume of coal slurry released into the Athabasca River on Oct. 31 at the defunct Obed Coal Mine near Hinton, Alta.
“Our director of public works and our fire chief are both aware of the situation and remain in contact with the authorities in Alberta as well as those in Yellowknife,” Mayor Andrew Cassidy told The Hub. “From everything we’ve heard, the spill should be pretty diluted if and when it hits Great Slave Lake. That being said, we are staying alert.”
The spill, a result of a failed retaining wall, consists of an estimated 670 million litres of processed water from a closed coal mine, containing elements such as manganese, lead, cadmium, mercury and cancer-causing substances.
The Alberta government, however, has indicated there is no immediate threat to human health and that the chemicals are dissipating as they travel down the Athabasca River.
A news release by the GNWT on Nov. 22 stated the plume was moving at approximately two kilometres per hour and would reach Lake Athabasca between Nov. 29 and Dec. 3.
Environment and Natural Resources Minister Michael Miltenberger attended the annual general assembly of the Northwest Territory Metis Nation in Hay River on Nov. 21 where he came under fire for the delay in advising the public of the potential risk of the plume heading north.
“If there are any shortcomings to the communication plan, they happened on my watch and I accept that,” Miltenberger said, adding that testing in Alberta has indicated chemical levels in the river have returned to safe, normal levels after the plume had passed.
The spill occurred more than 1,400 kilometres away from the NWT border and was still 600 kilometres from crossing as of Nov. 21.
Miltenberger emphasized the importance of local water monitoring stations in Fort Smith, through which the plume would travel down the Slave River and into Great Slave Lake.
Not everyone, however, was satisfied with promises to monitor the plume.
“I’m curious. You’re saying you’re doing all this monitoring, but if that shows there’s something pretty bad in the water, is there any clean-up strategy right now?” asked Tanner Froehlich, a member of the Hay River Metis Council.
Miltenberger replied that, although there was no clear strategy in place at that point, the most recent information available indicated the plume would most likely be safely diluted by the time it hit the 60th Parallel.
Premier Bob McLeod, also present at the annual assembly, said the NWT’s water monitoring system is one of the best in the world and that a transboundary water agreement with Alberta is probably only a few months away.
“The issue is a big one,” said McLeod. “But the reality is Alberta has a very aggressive agenda for resource development and there are any number of sites that could be risks of contaminants.”
Hay River draws its water from Great Slave Lake, with the intake located about eight kilometres away from shore.
Cassidy said Khizar Hayat, the town’s director of public works, planned to increase testing at the municipal water treatment facility as a result of the plume.
“It’s an important thing for this community,” said Cassidy. “It’s nothing to gloss over. All we can do is monitor it, be aware of the situation, and take steps to mitigate it if we have to.”