Study suggests prevalence of coal dust already in Stellarton air

Published on October 1, 2014

Some dust rises as a truck dumps its load at Pioneer Coal’s strip mine in Stellarton on Tuesday. Some residents are concerned that dust levels will increase if blasting is permitted on site. CHRISTOPHER CAMERON – THE NEWS

STELLARTON – An Acadia University professor says dust on properties close to the open strip mine in Stellarton he analyzed is by all indications coal dust.

“While visiting the area, I noted that black dust was common on both the inside and the outside of window sills, in some rain gutters and on other protected and elevated horizontal surfaces,” Dr. Ian Spooner wrote in a report. “The samples that I obtained produced a dark brown streak and did burn. These results indicated to me that the dust I encountered was coal dust.”

Spooner conducted his work as part of an expert opinion report for MacGillivray Law Office, which was requisitioned by the office in November 2013. Spooner is head of the Earth and Environmental Science Department at Acadia University. Prior to working at Acadia he was employed by various private companies including Shell Canada and Frontenac Aggregates and Construction.

Spooner made it clear in a phone interview that he is no specialist in health concerns, but did write in his report that: “The presence of significant coal dust on properties located close to the mine must be considered as both a nuisance and a health risk. In reading the supplied documentation it appears that coal dust is a common problem throughout the year. In talking with a local resident it was clear to me that consultation on this matter has not been extensive nor has it provided the residents with an adequate explanation as to how continued escape of particulate matter (coal dust) from the mine site will be reduced.”

Human disease associated with coal mining primarily results from breathing in particulate matter during the mining process.

The report reads: “The disease is Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis, characterized by coal dust-induced lesions in the gas exchange regions of the lung; the coal worker’s ‘black lung disease.’”

In the interview, Spooner said he strives to be completely unbiased in his work. He’s done studies for mining companies and others looking to do work in particular areas and has studied the effects of such activity for groups concerned about potential impacts.

Spooner’s report was sent to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment by MacGillivray’s Law office as part of their efforts to prevent Pioneer Coal from being allowed to blast at the mine.

What effects blasting would have were not included in Spooner’s report because it was completed before it had been proposed. Speaking with The News he said any blasting can produce dust, but there’s also ways that that dust can be controlled.

Jamie MacGillivray and others who live in the community are concerned about the proposed blasting however and fear that more dust could be created, which they believe poses risks to the community.

MacGillivray points out that G.R. Saunders Elementary School is located very close to the mining operation.

“The coal dust already generated by the mine could be contributing to the health problems with the students at the school, and with the surrounding residents,” MacGillivray wrote in a letter to the Environment Department. “The effects of blasting is going to make a bad situation much worse. Explosions create dust and coal dust is unhealthy.”

Speaking with The News on Wednesday, he said the mountain of fill from the mine continues to rise higher and higher and he worries what will happen if blasting is allowed.

In an interview earlier this summer, Donald Chisholm, president of Nova Construction, the parent company of Pioneer Coal, explained that when they first started strip mining in Stellarton in 1996, they didn’t think they’d need to use any blasting. As they mined in an easterly direction they came upon a very hard band of mud stone. They bought a machine with a rock saw to cut through the hard rock to the coal. But doing that has slowed progress, spewed large amounts of dust from the saw, increased operating costs and created a backup in places to put the waste material.

The rock they plan to blast through is approximately 30 feet thick. Under that there is a seam of coal about 11 feet thick. Pioneer Coal is proposing to blast explosives once a week over three years to break through the rock. He said the 30-foot band is at the bottom of the pits, which are as deep as 270 feet in places, so it’s a relatively small percentage of the mining that the blasting would be used for.

Heather Fairbairn, communications adviser for the Nova Scotia Department of Environment, said the department is currently reviewing the public input they’re received about the proposal to amend Pioneer Coal’s agreement to allow blasting. She said a decision should be coming soon, but did not have a specific date.