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What Is The Issue?

Until recently, open pit coal mining was not a threat to our water system in Alberta. In 1976, a Coal Development Policy was put in place by the Alberta government that protected the very sensitive areas of the headwaters. That policy took 2 years to develop and was created with input from the scientific community and public consultations. It divided the areas of potential interest for coal mining into 4 categories of land. Our headwaters and Rocky Mountains were protected by this policy as they were identified to be in a category of land that was too high risk for this type of activity to take place.  It was recognized there could be no recovery from losing our water source and damage to this environment.

In the spring of 2020, the government of Alberta rescinded this Coal Development Policy with no public consultation or input from First Nations or the scientific community. This action opened the doors for foreign interests to see business opportunities on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. These (mostly) Australian coal mining companies plan to ship the coal to China to use in the production of steel. 

The headwaters for Alberta rivers (as well as Saskatchewan and Manitoba rivers) are located on these eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. If the headwaters are damaged by the creation of surface mines, then all living things downstream will be at risk. The possibility of damage can arise when the soil, vegetation and the rock (overburden) that covers the vein of coal is removed. Whether it is called open pit mining, or mountain top removal…the potential for damage by surface mining in these sensitive areas is extreme. This industry uses a great deal of water, and is expected to use up a large portion of this most precious natural resource. Additionally, selenium poisoning of the water is a likely consequence as demonstrated by this type of mining in the Elk Valley, in BC. Selenium is a mineral that is toxic to fish, wildlife and humans when the level is too high. Deformities have already been noted in the endangered Westslope Cutthroat trout  in BC because of selenium poisoning. Community water wells near the BC mines are no longer safe, and the mining company there has been working hard to correct this problem, however, the technology does not currently exist to remove this toxin from the water.  The threat to our water is threefold: damage to the watershed, increased demand on this precious resource, and poison with selenium.

While this 1976 Policy was not protected as law (previous governments had already issued exemptions) it did describe restrictions for sensitive areas that were viewed as deterrents by coal mining companies and investors. After it was rescinded, public outrage grew over extensive exploration (roads and drilling in pristine wilderness) and proposals for surface mining in these sensitive areas. On February 8, 2021, in response to mounting pressure from the public, the Minister of Energy announced that the Coal Development Policy of 1976 was re-instated, and that the government would plan for public consultation in the development of a modern policy. She made it clear in her announcement, however, that approvals already issued for exploration would not be removed. Additionally, the minister emphasized that the government plans to proceed with metallurgical coal mining and “ensure a path forward for investors”.

On February 23, the Minister of Energy, Sonya Savage, stated in a press release: “Since announcing our commitment to widespread consultation on a modern coal policy for Alberta, we have heard from many passionate Albertans and interested groups who want to be engaged. I’m pleased to announce these public consultations will begin on March 29th. I have directed my department officials to bring forward a comprehensive consultation plan that is by Albertans and for Albertans. The details of the process will be announced before consultations begin.”

A most important first step, would be for the Government of Alberta to halt ALL coal exploration activities on the Eastern Slopes. 

On March 29, Sonya Savage announced the details of how the consultation process will proceed. The goal should be more accurately identified as the development of a Land Use Plan to protect Alberta water and the Eastern Slopes as opposed to a “Modern Coal Policy “ for Alberta. Please participate and make your views known.

On April 13, a private member’s bill (Bill 214: The Eastern Slopes Protection Act ) was introduced to the Standing Committee on Private Member’s Bills. A private member’s bill must be approved by this committee before it can go the Legislature for debate. Although the actual debate during the committee meeting smacked of party politics and blaming from both sides, the end result was an acknowledgement by all speakers that they had heard from their constituents on this issue. The Committee members unanimously voted to approve the bill to move forward to the Legislature for debate. However, on April 19, the Alberta Legislature turned down the request for special debate on this Bill 214, which means it will likely die on the order paper.

The Alberta Government released the Terms of Reference (dated March 29, but released on April 15) for the committee of 5 members who are expected to lead the public consultation on development of the “modern coal policy”. According to Sonya Savage (Energy Minister): “ by establishing an independent committee, everyone across the province will have their voices heard during this engagement process”. But the Terms of Reference clearly show this will not be allowed to happen. The committee (although deemed to be independent) is instructed not to include anything in the report about water use, quality, land use plans, First Nations concerns, threatened species, or anything else outside the Energy Minister’s portfolio. Many Albertans believe this makes a mockery out of the committee and the consultation process .

The Public Engagement Survey that was available to complete online from March 29 to April 19, resulted in over 25,000 completed surveys by Albertans in three weeks. On April 23, Minister of Energy Sonya Savage and Chair of the Committee on coal policy consultation, Ron Wallace, (link) announced that the Committee had reviewed preliminary data from the survey and recommended to the Minister that exploration be halted in Category 2 lands while the public consultation takes place. The Minister acted on that recommendation and halted exploration activity effective immediately in Category 2 lands. Both the Chair of the committee and the Minister of Energy clarified that the committee is indeed independent and they are encouraged to listen to Albertan’s views regarding all effects of coal development. While this can be seen as a very positive step forward, it is interesting to note that the Terms of Reference still do not reflect this. In addition, many Albertans believe strongly that ALL exploration should be halted on the Eastern Slopes, not just in Category 2 lands. The Minister re-stated that the goal is the development of a Coal Policy, not a land use plan for the Eastern Slopes. When you contact your MLA, make your views known.

Protect Alberta Water and Rocky Mountains.

Say NO to exploration and surface mining on the Eastern Slopes.

THERE ARE SEVERE CONSEQUENCES THAT WILL BE FELT BY ALL ALBERTANS IF SURFACE MINING IS PERMITTED TO PROCEED IN THE HEADWATERS AND SENSITIVE AREAS OF OUR EASTERN SLOPES

These consequences include:

  • The most  significant and far-reaching consequence is the threat to our water. Surface mining will damage our watersheds in the Eastern Slopes, become a heavy user of this precious resource, and poison the water with selenium for generations.
  • Recreational and tourism related businesses will be destroyed. Hiking, camping, hunting, cross country skiing, fishing and many other outdoor activities are at odds with open pit mining and will disappear in these areas. Parks in the region stretching north through the Rockies are threatened as more coal leases are sold.
  • Farms that are dependent on water irrigation systems in arid southern Alberta will be threatened. Crop production is a diverse industry in southern Alberta and operations vary in size from small market operations to large scale commercial farms. All of these operations depend on a source of good water for survival.
  • Our iconic Rocky Mountains will have their tops (or sides)removed by explosives in the process of locating, exposing and extracting the vein of coal that will be sold to China. Regardless of promises made by the coal mining companies, our mountains cannot be replaced. 
  • The eastern slopes of southern Alberta is ranching country. Cattle graze in the areas that the mining companies plan to exploit. Not only will the lack of (or selenium poisoned) water be devastating to this industry, but the mines will  destroy the actual grazing lands. The process of open pit mining involves removing the top soil and turf. This turf is currently rich with natural rough fescue. It is a hardy, particularly nutritious plant that sustains cattle and wildlife.  However, once this ancient grass is disturbed, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to remediate. 
  • After the turf with the  rough fescue is removed, the top of the mountain is actually removed with explosives. The rubble tumbles down the valley and it is from this rock rubble that the selenium leaches into ground water. Wildlife will no longer be able to survive in the vicinity. Not only is the water they depend on threatened, but their feed as well. The rough fescue that they rely on is important to sustain elk and bighorn sheep through the winter. Roads and heavy machinery will infiltrate the area, threatening wildlife (including grizzly bear and cougar) and push them into areas that are more populated and not suited for their survival. 
  • The white bark pine and limber pine are examples of species at risk that are native to the mountains and foothills. They grow at treeline on steep rocky cliffs. When surface mining removes the turf and vegetation, it is not selective. It removes species at risk as well.
  • Health issues will develop from the coal dust. Many Albertans (as well as wildlife and cattle) will suffer the consequences of coal dust taking the place of fresh mountain air.
  • The Eastern Slopes support First Nations traditions including hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering, travelling, and cultural practices. Exploration and coal developments will infringe on First Nations Treaty Rights.
  • Alberta will be investing in an industry that will negatively impact our reputation for working to reduce impacts on climate change.
  • Our downstream neighbours in Saskatchewan and Manitoba will be negatively affected. Lawsuits from downstream users in the United States are a current reality as a result of the BC mines. Alberta will logically be at risk from lawsuits as well.
  • Coal prices fluctuate and coal mining companies are in the business to make money. When the price of coal drops, the companies will move out. Alberta will be left with unspeakable environmental damage.

The Alberta government has sold coal mining leases that stretch north through the Eastern Slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.

The risk of surface mining in these areas is too high.

Protect Alberta Water and Rocky Mountains. Say NO to exploration and open pit coal mining on the Eastern Slopes.

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Images Copyright Callum Gunn, eastcherry


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protectalbertawater@gmail.com