Point Aconi surface coal mine and reclamation
I am a wetland scientist currently employed in the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University. I hold a Ph.D. in biology from the Wetlands Research Centre at the University of Waterloo and the focus of my research has been wetland ecology in Nova Scotia. Please consider the following to be a public submission to the environmental assessment process currently underway for the proposed Point Aconi surface coal mine on Bouladerie Island, Cape Breton.
On June 27, 2005, the Minister of Environment and Labour required the proponent to provide additional information regarding the presence/absence of wetlands near the proposed undertaking, as well as an evaluation of their ecosystem function and significance. Subsequent work carried out by Dillon Consulting Limited, and signed by Karen March, M.Sc., provides additional information about the wetlands to be impacted by the proposed undertaking. They report the presence of five wetlands within the study area, including a 7.3 ha treed bog, a 6.5 ha fen, a 1.9 ha shrub bog, a 2.2 ha treed bog, and a 1.8 ha salt marsh. Three of these wetlands are located within the actual footprint of the proposed mine (the 7.3ha, 6.5ha, and 2.2ha wetlands).
A sixth wetland, however, also occurs within the study site not identified by the consultants or the proponent, or apparently by the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This wetland occurs at Morrison Pond, and is classified as a freshwater marsh according to the Canadian Wetland Classification System. This wetland fits the definition provided in the Environmental Assessment Regulations, which states "Wetland means lands commonly referred to as marshes, swamps, fens, bogs, and shallow water areas that are saturated with water long enough to promote wetland or aquatic processes which are indicated by poorly drained soil, vegetation and various kinds of biological activity which are adapted to a wet environment" (Section (2)(y), environmental assessment regulations).
According to the field transect information provided by the consultants, the scientists reviewing the wetlands in this region actually set foot on the wetland system at Morrison Pond but failed to properly identify it as a wetland area. This is an incredible oversight made by the consultant, which makes me question both the depth and breadth of their scientific review, and their ability to properly assess the presence/absence of wetlands and evaluate their ecosystem function and significance, as required by the Minister of Environment and Labour in his decision of June 27, 2005. The existence of wetland habitat at Morrison Pond is clearly discernable to a wetland scientist, and is even visible within one of the site photographs provided on the first page of Appendix C of the addendum (entitled: Morrison Brook Pond, middle photograph, second row from the top). Please note the existence of wetland habitat on either side of the brook, shown in that photograph. Somewhat surprisingly, the consultants even identified numerous wetland species from this area, but failed to properly identify it as a "wetland" habitat. Wetland plant species identified at this location by the consultants include Eleocharis palustris (Spikerush), Sparganium eurycarpum (American Bur-reed), Juncus effuses (soft rush), Triadenum virginicum (Marsh St. John's Wort), and Typha latifolia (broad-leaved cat-tail), among others, as shown in the species list table for Transact T5, Appendix B, Point Aconi Summer Plant Survey. This is an example of how conclusions drawn in the report don't always follow logically from the information presented. They failed, for instance, to identify the obvious presence of a wetland at Morrison Pond despite having identified wetland indicators from that location. Consequently, any conclusions drawn about the potential impact of the mining operations on wetland habitat are incomplete at best, and based upon suspect interpretations.
For this reason, and due to the precedence that could be set for Nova Scotia's new wetland policy, I have taken the time to thoroughly review the wetland evaluation provided by Dillon Consulting Limited for the proponent's surface coal mine environmental assessment application. I have found inconsistencies in their data that influences subsequent evaluations of the wetland ecosystems. In particular, I have identified several important and uncharacteristic ecological features on the wetland surface of the 7.3 ha treed bog entirely missed by the fieldwork carried out by the consultants. Subsequently, they have drawn false conclusions regarding the local, regional, and provincial significance of this particular wetland system, which ultimately undervalues the Valued Ecological and Socio-economic Components (VESCs) of the wetland. For the freshwater marsh wetland system located at Morrison Pond that was missed altogether by the consultants, and subsequently by the proponent, no evaluation of potential impacts to the wetland is provided, as required by the Minister. Interesting enough, groundwater pumped out of the proposed mine site will ultimately make its way to the ocean via Morrison Brook, which runs through the wetland at Morrison Pond. Section 184.108.40.206. of the addendum (page 9 of 14) says, "There is potential for marine habitat to be affected by sedimentation, metals, or acidification from surface water discharge from Morrison Brook". It follows that wetland areas adjacent to Morrison Brook could be similarly impacted by these substances, which the proponent is predicting may occur within the discharged water. These potential damages have not been assessed by the proponent, since the consultants have overlooked the presence of wetland habitat at this location.
I have reviewed, in detail, the wetland information provided to the proponent by Dillon Consulting Limited, and the subsequent addendum to the original environmental assessment registration document (EARD) that is based upon the consultant's work. In addition to reviewing these documents, I have also visited the study site and have independently assessed the ecological features of the 7.3 ha treed bog in Block 2 of the proposed mine, as well as the misidentified wetland at Morrison Pond where discharge pumped from the proposed mine will be directed. I'd like to bring these results to the attention of the Department of Environment and Labour (DEL) for your consideration in the environmental review of the proposed surface coal mine near Point Aconi.
The 7.3 ha treed bog is located in Block 2 of the proposed surface mine. It covers a large proportion of the proposed mine site and the proponent is requesting permission to remove the wetland to extract coal beneath.
Dillon Consulting Limited has done a reasonably thorough job of characterizing the dominant vegetation communities and species that occur within this wetland (see plant lists in Appendix B of the addendum for the 7.3 ha wetland). Indeed, the wetland system is dominated by black spruce, tamarack, alder, holly, huckleberry, Rhodora, and leatherleaf, with wetter areas containing leatherleaf, cranberry, and sundew, among other species.
I fail to understand, however, why non-vascular plants, such as Sphagnum were not included in this plant survey, given that peat forming wetlands such as the 7.3 ha treed bog are often dominated by the moss, Sphagnum. Plant surveys provided by the consultant are incomplete without this information. Different species of Sphagnum occupy different micro-habitats in bog environments, including hummocks, hollows, lawns, wet depressions, and shallow water areas. Indeed, coastal peatland systems such as the 7.3 ha treed bog can be expected to contain a number of species restricted to the coastal zone, some of which are ranked globally as imperilled. Sphagnum flavicomans, for instance, is a coastally-restricted species endemic to the coastal plain area of eastern North America that has not be searched for in the study site, but which could and probably does occur there. Interpretations of rare or significant species in bog habitats are incomplete without knowledge of non-vascular plant communities, given their importance to peatland environments. This is a major oversight in the wetland evaluation provided by the consultants.
Moreover, to detect the presence of rare or uncommon plant species within the 7.3 ha treed bog, numerous site visits must occur at different times throughout the flowering season, including in spring and early fall. The number of less common species detected within the bog will increase with increasing effort to detect them. I'm not confident that this particular wetland has been studied in enough detail and at all appropriate times of the year to reach firm conclusions about the plant communities, or even to provide complete species lists.
The main point that I'd like to bring to the attention of DEL for their environmental review of the proposed surface coal mine, however, is the failure of Dillon Consultants Ltd., and subsequently the proponent, to recognize several noteworthy ecological features present atop the 7.3 ha treed bog. In particular, on a site visit to the bog in July, I noticed a fairly extensive population of Cypripedium sp. (lady's slipper) growing atop ombrotrophic peat. To a wetland scientist, this is peculiar and merits further study. Lady's slippers are orchids that most commonly grow in fertile areas near hardwood or mixed forests. They don't commonly grow in the nutrient impoverished conditions of a bog, which do not receive nutrient inputs from the groundwater table. Bogs are ombrotrophic, which means they get their water from precipitation alone. That's why bogs contain insectivourous species, since plants are forced to adapt to the nutrient poor conditions. However, the 7.3 ha treed bog that is proposed to be removed by the proponent contains nutrient-demanding orchids in a nutrient-impoverished environment. Interestingly enough, Dillon Consultants Ltd. identifies the presence of lady's slippers atop the 7.3 ha bog, but fails to recognize the ecological significance of this discovery. I also question how the consultants were able to identify the plant to the species level as "pink lady's slippers", when these plants flower in the late spring and early summer and site visits by the consultants did not take place until mid- to late-July and into August. There are several rare species of Cypripedum that occur in the province. Other rarities could occur in this wetland as a result of the unestablished relationship between ex situ nutrient inputs and the ombrotophic conditions of the bog.
My hypothesis for the presence of the nutrient-demanding lady slippers in the nutrient impoverished conditions of the 7.3 ha treed bog is that the wetland is receiving nutrient inputs from the marine environment, probably from ocean spray that wafts over the bog during storm events. Ecological relationships of this nature deserve greater attention, particularly if the proponent wishes to re-establish the wetlands following the mining operations. We must first understand how these wetlands operate before we can attempt to re-build them after removing them. Constructing wetlands is difficult and requires much more work than simply digging a hole and filling it with water. Years of work will be required to rebuild such ecosystems and there are currently no details within the EARD that demonstrates how the proponent intends to achieve this goal.
The other ecological feature of importance within the 7.3 ha treed bog is the presence of an aspen-dominated community within a bog environment. This is uncommon in Nova Scotia, indeed at locations south of the boreal, sub-arctic, and sub-montane zones. Please note that Dillon Consulting Ltd. has identified the presence of this species within the 7.3 ha bog (e.g. Populus tremuloides (trembling aspen), Appendix B of the addendum), but they fail to make the connection with the ecological importance of this finding. Bogs in Nova Scotia are most commonly inhabited by dwarfed black spruce and tamarack, and occasionally white pine in the southwestern portions of the province, but not by trembling aspen. Providing species lists for the sake of providing species lists is irrelevant, without applying that information in a logical way and with consideration of up-to-date ecological knowledge.
Because the consultant has failed to recognize the ecological importance of having Cypripedum and Popuus tremuloides within this bog environment, they consequently have under-valued the ecological significance of this wetland in their wetland evaluation (Appendix E) and within the table of Valued Ecological and Socio-economic Components (VESCs). For instance, the consultant's report says that the 7.3 ha treed bog maintains no ecological features of provincial or regional significance. This is false and causes the wetland to score too low on the wetland evaluation forms. I also question the thoroughness of the other wetland evaluations, given that the other wetlands (e.g. the 6.5 ha and 2.2 ha) are described as being 7.3 ha in size. For example, each wetland evaluation form has a section for "Project Key Disbenefits", and each says "loss of 7.3 ha of wetland to be replaced with equivalent or better habitat during reclamation". It seems pretty clear to me that a "cut-and-paste" approach to the wetland analysis may have taken place. Site specific reporting should be required for the wetland evaluations. This error makes me question whether this has indeed taken place.
I'd also like to take a minute to discuss another problem with the wetland evaluation of the 7.3 ha treed bog. The wetland appears to exist in a drier condition today than it has in the recent past. This is detectable in the field by the relict hummock-hollow physiography in the centre of the wetland and the large growth profiles of the dominant trees. The causes for this are not known but are probably related to anthropogenic effects associated with the power generation facility or nearby pit operations. Much to my disbelief, Dillon Consultants Ltd. suggests that this drying is probably due to climatic factors!!! Absurd. Changes in climate operate on spatial and temporal scales substantially beyond that of ecosites. Climatic changes would impact adjacent wetland areas as well, and over a much broader geographic area than just the northern tip of Bouladerie Island. There is an easy scientific test to see if humans are likely causing the 7.3 ha wetland to become less wet over time, using dendrochronology techniques. Dendrochronology is the study of tree rings. By observing growth patterns and ring thickness from a sample of trees growing on the bog, the timing of the drying can be pin-pointed to the year by counting backwards to the point where growth rings increase in size dramatically. This date will tell you, to the year, when drying started to occur on the wetland, which could conceivably be correlated with the timing of other pit mine operations or the creation of the power generation facility. Cause and effect relationships will require additional work, of course. This has not been studied but is of obvious relevance to the reclamation portion of the project. Approving the project now, and without an environmental assessment report, would be premature and could cause problems for wetland reclamation after the mining operations are completed.
Moreover, if the cause of the drying of the wetland is due to drawdown associated with the Point Aconi Power Plant, placing an open-pit mine at this location could remove a portion of the groundwater supply currently being used by the power plant. As a result, other sources of groundwater may have to be tapped by the power plant to recoup potential losses of groundwater supply from the mine. In other words, more water may have to be pumped from elsewhere on Bouladerie Island, which could potentially expand the overall footprint of the proposed mine substantially beyond the study area examined in the current and amended EARD. It seems reasonable to account for these concerns before environmental approvals are granted by requiring an environmental assessment report for this project. This could prove to be the least expensive option for the proponent if it helps to avoid a scenario where expensive compensation is required to mitigate effects unforeseen by the current EARD. The wetland evaluation forms state that the economics of the project are such that coal must be extracted beneath the wetlands. It states, for each wetland to be removed by the project: "The coal deposit is fixed and the project economics depend on extraction of those resources underlying the wetland". If the economics for this project are as tight as the EARD suggests, than the economics of the project probably can't support expensive compensation for unforeseen problems as well, not too mention the expense of rebuilding three wetland areas. An environmental assessment report should be required to help the proponent better address the economic situation around potential and likely compensation requirements.
Nova Scotia's newly adopted wetland policy outlines a clear mitigative sequence, as follows; avoidance-minimization-compensation. The current EARD jumps directly to the compensation phase of this mitigative sequence, exactly the scenario the wetland policy was intended to prevent. This mitigative sequence was developed to prevent the situation where every wetland in the province has a pricetag associated with it, essentially the cost industry must pay to have the right to remove or damage the wetland. Afterall, it is much easier to pay for damages outright by writing a cheque than figuring out a way to avoid damages to the wetlands in the first place, or to mitigate damages through best management techniques. For the current proposal, the clear mitigative sequence that should be followed is AVOIDANCE first. This means that no mining activity should take place in Block 2 and an adequate buffer of at least 100m to 200m should be placed around the 7.3ha treed bog to protect the level of the groundwater table from falling due to adjacent mining activities. I disagree with the conclusion of Dillon Consulting Ltd. that the most significant wetland in the block is the 1.9ha wetland. The larger 7.3 ha treed bog in Block 2 contains features that are much more interesting to wetland science, features that warrant further study. By avoiding the 7.3 ha wetland this will also have the effect of MINIMIZING the overall impact of the project on the wetland environment. It's also interesting to note that the dangerous boot-leg mining operations that form part of the reason for the undertaking do not occur in wetland environments, so destroying the wetlands is not required to reclaim the landscape as the proponent appears to be suggesting. Similarly, Block 3 contains important wetland habitat that should not be overlooked by the mitigative sequence of the new wetland policy, as does the northern portion of Block 1.
Approving this application as it is currently written will essentially render Nova Scotia's new wetland policy useless. Clear provisions are in place within that policy to prevent damages to wetlands in the first place. This mitigative sequence has not been followed. The proponent has jumped over the avoidance and minimization phases to go directly to the end portion of the sequence, the COMPENSATION phase. This phase of the mitigative sequence is only supposed to be used in the very rare situation where damages to wetlands cannot be avoided or minimized. It is also the most expensive phase of the mitigative sequence and the phase that requires the most amount of monitoring and site specific evaluation. Rebuilding wetlands removed by the project will take decades, perhaps generations. Peatlands by their very nature are hard to build and require many, many years to develop the necessary properties to support viable populations of wetland plants. They typically build biomass at a rate of 1mm per year in Nova Scotia, and must typically reach a height of 2 metres before becoming perched above the groundwater table to develop ombrotrophic conditions. As far as I can tell, the proponent has not provided any sort of scientific rationale or methodology that will be followed when rebuilding the wetlands removed by the undertaking. Although large portions of the coal seam occur at locations away from the wetland areas, the proponent has not provided a clear reason as to why these wetlands must be destroyed to capture the underlying coal, beyond saying that the economics of the project require the wetlands to be removed. If that's really the case, than the expense of rebuilding approximately 15 ha of wetland could be prohibitively cumbersome to the proponent. The proponent may not be aware of this situation. It would constitute the largest wetland construction project in Nova Scotia and would require time-intensive work and detailed follow-up studies by qualified individuals, to have the desired effect of creating self-sustaining wetland functions.
Based upon my analysis of the area and the project, it is my recommendation that Nova Scotia's wetland policy be followed. This means that wetlands occurring in the proposed mining area should be avoided, particularly the unusual 7.3ha bog in Block 2. Buffers of at least 100m to 200m should be established around the wetlands to prevent the open-pit mine from drawing water out of the wetland areas. A full environmental assessment report should also be carried out so that the original character of the wetlands present in the mining area can be ascertained, so that the wetlands can be properly protected and/or restored at a later date. This should involve analysis of ecology, hydrology, geology, geochemistry, vegetation, landscape physiography, bathymetry, climatic considerations, and connections with the coastal and marine environment. It should also examine stressors currently placed upon the wetland environments by existing anthropogenic operations, such as the power generation plant and adjacent strip mine areas. Better details need to be provided about the wetland reclamation process, one that follows the mitigative sequence outlined in Nova Scotia's new wetland policy. To do any less could result in irreversible damages to the wetland habitats in the Point Aconi area.
Thank you for your time and interest,
Chris Miller, Ph.D.