Lethbridge woman swims 15 km stretch across Oldman Reservoir, raises awareness around open-pit coal mines

Nichole Robinson, 26, wanted to combine her passion for the environment with her passion for swimming to raise awareness for potential drinking water contamination from open-pit coal mines in Alberta. Eloise Therien / Global News

Nicole Robinson, a 26-year-old environmental science graduate from Lethbridge, Alta., felt she needed to send a message about potential hazards to the city’s main source of drinking water following a provincial decision related to metallurgical coal mining.

In May, the Alberta government announced they would rescind the Coal Policy effective June 1.

The policy — which had been in effect since 1976 — restricted development across much of southern Alberta’s foothills and eastern slopes.

Its goal was to “ensure that there were appropriate regulatory and environmental protection measures in place before new coal projects were authorized,” according to the Government of Alberta’s website.

The province said this objective is being met by today’s modern regulatory, land use planning and leasing systems.

By lifting the policy, companies can now propose open-pit mines in areas untouched for many years, such as the Crowsnest Pass.

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: Alberta government to change restrictions on foothills coal mining to ease development

“It’s easy for us to feel complacent with these decisions and feel like [we] can’t really make a difference,” Robinson said.

Having been heavily involved in swimming her whole life, Robinson was ready to tackle a 15-kilometre swim across the waters of the Oldman Reservoir to raise awareness about potential selenium contamination caused by open-pit mining practices.

“It will impact our drinking water,” Robinson said. “We should all [look into] the risks, take it seriously.”

Selenium is a metal used to make electronics, rubber, pesticides and other products.

Tiny amounts make their way into water sources through soil erosion and rock weathering, but surface and ground water are often contaminated with the metal through mining operations.

In small quantities, it isn’t known to be harmful and humans typically consume selenium through food on a daily basis. However, exposure to high levels of selenium for a long time in drinking water can cause hair loss, brittle nails, and neurological problems.

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: Feds urged to do own review of proposed coal mine expansion near Hinton

Global News reached out to Australian company Riversdale Resources regarding Robinson’s concerns and their Grassy Mountain Coal Project near Blairemore, but the company has yet to respond.

According to the company website, any contaminated water from their mine will be thoroughly treated.

“The majority of the water will be surface water or groundwater from the mine and will only require treatment to remove sediment,” the website reads.

“Water that is in contact with rock disposal areas or the coal handling and processing plant will need additional treatment to remove other contaminants. This water will be circulated through an engineered saturated back fill zone to remove selenium and nitrates.

“Other metals will be removed (if necessary) through additional water treatment. All water must meet water quality specifications before release into the environment.”

The Grassy Mountain Coal Project is still awaiting federal approval, but has passed its environmental assessment.

The main concern for Robinson and local landowners is the potential the province’s decision brings increased contamination risk if more mines are approved.

Sponsored content