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No problem with most Alberta resource dams except one coal mine: regulator

EDMONTON – An investigation into the structural safety of energy industry dams and ponds in Alberta has no found serious problems except at one coal mine.

The Alberta Energy Regulator says its review of 55 oilsands and 14 oil and gas structures did not identify any significant deficiencies.

But its inspection of 31 coal mine structures found a significant problem at a Coal Valley Resources Inc. mine pond near Edson.

“One structure, owned by Coal Valley Resources, was found to be significantly deficient,” Kirk Bailey, the regulator’s executive vice-president of operations, said.

“Inspectors found erosion within the structure, which was causing a free flow of water from a partially reclaimed pit, which is a contravention of several Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act approval conditions.”

The regulator said the Oct. 14, 2014, release of a substance from the pond is under investigation.

“The AER is investigating this non-compliance and will release the results of its investigation when complete.”

The mine is separate from Coal Valley’s Obed mine near Hinton, where about 670 million litres of waste water spilled on Oct. 31, 2013.

At the time, Coal Valley operated the Obed mine as a subsidiary of Sherritt International Corp. (TSX:S).

Last month the Alberta Crown charged the two companies with offences under Alberta’s Environmental Protection Act, Public Lands Act and Water Act over the spill.

The regulator ordered inspections of the structural integrity of energy industry dams last March after Alberta’s auditor general said the government was failing to properly regulate the province’s network of dams and tailings ponds.

Auditor general Merwan Saher said most of the mines used by the coal industry had not been inspected since the 1980s or 1990s and there were no safety reviews on file for 22 of the structures.

He also said the Obed mine site in 2013 was not registered as a dam even though it met the requirements.

The regulator said that over the last six months it has inspected 100 of 111 dams and tailings ponds to ensure that they are built, operated, maintained and decommissioned safely. Of the 11 not inspected, some were just approved for construction and others are to be reviewed next year.

“The AER has a proactive inspection program in place to ensure that dams and other containment structures related to energy resource development remain in compliance with safety and environmental requirements,” Bailey said.

“Albertans should feel confident that the AER is committed to protecting what matters most — public safety and the environment.”

On Dec. 24, 2013, Sherritt announced that it was selling its coal operations, including Coal Valley Resources, to U.S.-based Westmoreland Coal Co.

The Obed mine’s website says operations were staged down in November 2012 because of low coal prices and there are currently no plans to resume active mining and processing.