Manitoba Hydro's sale of $9M Brandon coal pile 'moving the problem elsewhere,' researcher says
Crown utility won't say who purchased 108,000 tonnes of coal stored at Brandon site or how it will be used
There are more questions than answers about the sale of a multimillion-dollar pile of coal by Manitoba Hydro.
The Crown utility has sold its remaining stockpile of coal from its Brandon generating station — which was the last in the province to use coal for electricity generation, CBC News has learned.
But who bought the stockpile and how it will be used remains a secret. The purchase price also wasn't disclosed, but the corporation valued the pile at $9 million.
"The coal was purchased by a private Manitoba company and is currently being removed from the Brandon Generating Station site," Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen told CBC News in August, in response to questions about the sale.
"The purchase is a confidential matter between Manitoba Hydro and the purchaser."
While Manitoba Hydro has historically used water to generate electricity, it currently operates a handful of diesel generators in remote communities, along with the Selkirk Generating Station, which was a coal-powered plant until 2002, when it was converted to natural gas. It was taken offline on April 1, 2021.
Brandon's station was originally powered by four coal-fired generators. A fifth was added in 1970.
The original four units were taken offline in 2001, and two combustion gas turbines were added, according to Manitoba Hydro's website.
Coal operations at Brandon stopped in August 2018, after the Bipole III transmission line was put into use. Between 2009 and 2018, coal was only used at the station to help during emergencies, such as major outages, Owen said.
The station no longer generates its own electricity, but now runs most of the year as a synchronous condenser to regulate grid voltage in southwest Manitoba, according to Hydro.
Regardless, the sale raises questions about where the coal could end up and the impact that might have on the environment and climate change.
"Believe me, there is no such thing as clean coal, because each option requires burning the coal, which produces ash and gases that are the culprit in both air and water pollution," said Dennis Lemly, a retired U.S. government scientist who has published dozens of papers with hundreds of citations on coal mining's impact.
"Manitoba Hydro's move away from coal is simply moving the problem elsewhere — in this immediate case, to the buyer of that coal."
There aren't many uses for coal besides electricity generation, said Simon Pattison, a professor and chair of the geology department at Brandon University.
"There are ways to to scrub out and to clean up the emissions from coal-fired electricity generation," he said. "We have a really good example almost in our backyard in Saskatchewan."
A carbon capture system at the Boundary Dam power station, near Estevan, Sask., is capable of reducing sulphur dioxide emissions by up to 100 per cent and the carbon dioxide by up to 90 per cent, SaskPower claims in a post on its website.
"It doesn't remove all of the carbon ... [but] it is kind of a cleaner way of using coal for electricity generation," Pattison said. "Unfortunately, that's it."
Boundary Dam's carbon capture system puts it "in the clear minority for electricity generation plants that use coal," he said.
Lemly said the coal could also be processed in gasification or liquefaction.
However, "none of these options are 'responsible' because they are far, far from green-friendly," he said.
But the most environmentally sound solution, Pattison said, also isn't as simple as leaving the coal pile where it is.
"Basically, you've got a pile of coal and you got to do something with it," he said, noting that it has already been mined and transported to Brandon.
"I guess really the two options you could use it for are electricity generation … or maybe making steel, if it's the right kind of coal.
"The other option would be disposal."
Pattison said leaving the coal where it is could lead to water pollution. Rainwater seeping through the coal could increase the amounts of certain elements — such as iron — that could be harmful to some forms of wildlife or contaminate drinking water.
"Even if you're disposing of that coal somewhere, you also have the environmental downside that you're going to have groundwater and surface water pollution," he said.
Owen said Manitoba Hydro stored approximately 108,000 tonnes of coal at the site. The purchaser will ship between 18,000 to 26,000 tonnes annually, he said. Manitoba Hydro did not give a specific timeframe for the removal of the coal.
It's unclear whether environmental impacts were considered in the purchase.
However, Owen said the sale "significantly" reduces the environmental and financial risk of having the coal stockpiled at the Brandon site.
- We initially reported that the coal was sold for $9 million. In fact, the purchase price was not disclosed, but Manitoba Hydro valued the inventory at $9 million.Sep 10, 2021 10:39 AM CT
With files from Joanne Levasseur
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