One group says the clean-up of what is believed to be Canada's largest ever coal slurry spill is going to be a massive task.​

About 670 million litres of waste spilled from a coal mine in Alberta on Oct. 31 (the original estimate was 1 billion litres) in what is believed to be Canada's largest ever coal slurry spill. The government of Alberta has ordered Coal Valley Resources and Sherritt International to clean it up.

“We’re talking about contaminants that have been spread out over 150 plus kilometres of the river,” says Ramsey Hart of Mining Watch. “There may be hot spots that can be cleaned up from the most heavily polluted areas, but it’s going to be impossible to remove all the contaminants that have now been released.”

According to a new website established by Sherritt International, the plume of wastewater is now moving north at an estimated two to five km/h. 

Hart says the Alberta government talks about sucking up or dredging some of the sediments, but getting all of it will be a complicated process.

Sherritt monitoring the spill

Sherritt International says it's still evaluating the cost of cleaning up the massive spill... and determining what caused it. 

The company says a team of Sherritt employees and independent fish and other experts were dispersed along the creek system that travels down to the Athabasca and along the Athabasca River. They say they have been doing visual inspections on the land, in boats and in the air to asses the impact on any sediment and fish habitat. 

However, according to the Obed Mountain Mine’s website, visual inspection could be not be done Thursday since the river had started to freeze. 

Sean McCaughen is the senior vice president of Sherritt Coal. “What we have done already, we have installed some monitoring stations along the river. The government also has ones as well and we are sharing data back and forth. Those stations are examples of how we are going to measure things like turbidity and sediment throughout the winter period."
McCaughen says that work will continue into the winter.

McCaughen says operations at the Obed mine were suspended in late 2012, with the intention to re-open the mine if prices recovered. He says containment ponds aren’t normally remediated right away. 

The company says it's also keeping a close eye on fish habitat, and plans to carry more more assessments in the spring.
Both the company and the province's test results show there's no immediate health concerns.

Plume moving downstream

The town of Fort Smith, N.W.T., which is on the Slave River, is getting new water monitoring equipment in the wake of the spill.

According to the Northwest Territories government, the majority of water in the Slave River is from the Peace River, not  the Athabasca, so it is assumed there would be even more chemical dilution once the water reaches the N.W.T. The Alberta government says the more the pollution moves downstream, the more diluted it gets.

Fort Smith Mayor Brad Brake is not worried. “With our sophisticated third class water plant, there is no real concern at this time.”

The N.W.T. government and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada were shipping water monitoring equipment out of Yellowknife to Fort Smith Thursday, to test water before and after the plume reaches the area.