Environment and Climate Change Canada is considering plans to impose new effluent limits that would reduce harmful discharges from coal mining by 2019.

Ottawa's proposal would require new coal mines to collect and monitor all effluent through a final discharge point where it would have to meet new limits for suspended solids, nitrates and a toxic byproduct called selenium.

For existing mines, effluent limits would be monitored after discharge into the environment.

First stakeholder consultation

The department held its first stakeholder consultation in Nova Scotia on Wednesday.

More meetings are scheduled for Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia in coming weeks. 

"It's at the very preliminary stage; we don't know even what the limits are that they are looking at," Gretchen Fitzgerald, director of the Sierra Club of Canada, said after the briefing in Truro, N.S.

"Hopefully in the months ahead we will see more information."

Dumping coal tailings into lakes 

Fitzgerald said she is concerned the department is proposing to allow coal mine tailings to be discharged into lakes and other natural water bodies with fish "under certain conditions."

Gretchen Fitzgerald Sierra Club

Gretchen Fitzgerald is Atlantic director of the Sierra Club of Canada. She says the federal government has an opportunity with the proposed changes to send a message about the importance of protecting natural water bodies. (Robert Short/CBC)

The department says coal waste discharge into lakes would have to be "shown as the best option for disposal, taking into account environmental, technical, socioeconomic and economic factors."

"To not allow that would be smart and to send a strong signal that we are going to protect natural water bodies," Fitzgerald said.

Coal industry watching 

The Coal Association of Canada did not comment on the department's plans, which are contained in a January 2017 discussion paper released to CBC News on Wednesday.

"We are aware of the proposal frameworks and look forward to attending the session ourselves next week in Edmonton," Sarah Hamilton, an association spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

In its discussion paper, Environment Canada says the objective is to reduce threats to fish, fish habitat and human health by decreasing the level of harmful substances discharged into surface water from coal mine effluent.

Coal

More meetings are scheduled for Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia in coming weeks. (CBC)

Nova Scotia is the only province east of Saskachewan with coal mining.

A representative of Antigonish-based strip miner Pioneer Coal was in Truro for the briefing, but declined to be interviewed.

U.S. coal giant Kameron Collieries is restarting the mothballed underground Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton. The company did not respond to CBC News inquiries.

Selenium a concern 

Environment Canada continues to focus on selenium, an element released into the environment by coal mining. 

It has been found to accumulate in fish and harm reproduction.

Selenium is of concern in southeastern British Columbia and western Alberta.

coal mining nova scotia

Nova Scotia is the only province east of Saskatchewan with coal mining. (CBC)

"A requirement to segregate mine wastes containing elevated levels of selenium would be established for new mines and expansion projects," the department paper states.

The department plans to publish final regulations in 2019.

The regulations will be modelled on rules developed for metal mining under the Fisheries Act. 

Hopes rise for networks defunded under Harper

The Nova Scotia Environmental Network was one of the groups invited by Environment Canada to discuss the coal mine effluent.

That was encouraging for director Sheila Cole, who said environmental networks were sidelined by the previous Conservative government.

The Canadian Environmental Network was defunded by the Harper government in 2011, losing $547,000 in core funding from Environment Canada.

The Trudeau government has not restored that funding.

"They have been doing a lot of social media and a lot of town halls," said Cole. 

"They are valuable, they are very good ways to take the temperature, but the environmental networks and environmental groups across the country have not been able to use their expertise and their long years of experience to bring to the table."

Cole hopes a lobby campaign will see funding restored in the upcoming budget.