By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on October 28, 2020.
The Oldman watershed provides essential water to more than 200,000 Albertans. Should this already overcommitted watershed have open-pit coal mining added to its litany of woes?
I stand in opposition to open-pit coal mines in the headwaters of the Oldman because I’m convinced the proposed projects fail to serve society; pose known and obvious health and welfare threats; needlessly degrade the environment and its life-sustaining gift of clear, clean water; and effectively kill all other economic options within a region – The Crown of the Continent – characterized by world-class beauty and open-vista intrigue.
The world is changing. Climate-change issues demand that we step past the past. The Elk River’s dead and dying trout are today’s canary in British Columbia’s dirty coal pits. These trout, in death, speak to us in terms of assessing the worth of open-pit coal mining in Alberta.
It is perhaps understandable, but frightening, to realize some members of society, within a world threatened by a pandemic and financial upheaval, are quick to rise to the bait cast by wealthy speculators’ assurances of easy coal money. Hidden from this view: a plethora of dark unknowns and the assured loss of stunning vistas and quality-of-life living.
What’s most troubling is a get-rich-quick thinker’s tendency to embrace futuristic engineering schemes and untried technology while ignoring the constraints imposed by existing scientific knowledge. This liability leads to speculation that lacks rigour, full-equation data and full-spectrum research. Some people are already launching dreams of instant coal mining wealth while blind to the many other economic options available. They stand poised to assault the land that sustains life and its free – but increasingly rare – gift of clear, clean water.
Do open-pit proponents see nothing more than foreign speculators’ cash, an outreached hand and, with it, an alluring, passing promise of prosperity? If we reach up to accept this offer, we accept, too, its liabilities and must stand willing to throw away all other forms of economic advantage and long-range virtue.
The Oldman watershed, in addition to being the water tower for southern Alberta, is a cathedral, a place of worship, and not just for Indigenous people. Its doors are open to everyone. Exposed here is a breathtaking, world-class mountainous panorama known across oceans.
This headwaters landscape, a priceless possession, belongs, not just to the people of Crowsnest Pass or the people of Alberta, but to all Canadians. It’s a rare and spectacular asset worth billions. It should never be squandered for someone’s short-term gain. Alberta’s long-range wealth, health, and prosperity depend on its ability to keep intact the mountains that feed our souls, provide us with clear, clean water, and offer us a wild landscape in which to grow, a land we can share – intact! – with the world that passes at our doorstep.
During graduate studies, I had occasion to visit southern Alberta and travel through Crowsnest Pass. I, instantly, fell in love with the area’s raw beauty, its visible wildlife, its edge-of-world intrigue. I was disturbed, however, by the sight of a coal-blackened landscape and coal-blackened roadside miners who stood at highway’s edge waiting for the company bus. Shortly afterward, I applied for and was given the job of managing, for Alberta Culture, interpretive programming at the Frank Slide, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, and the Turner Valley Gas Plant. My new home: Crowsnest Pass, Alberta.
And so it came to pass that I, in love with “The Pass” – as it’s called by locals, as if it’s the only mountain pass on Earth – came back to The Pass and its raw surroundings of natural beauty. I came back despite a plethora of lingering scars left by unreclaimed mines. I came back because The Pass’s dirty affair with coal mining was history, a thing of the past. The land was no longer black with coal dust. There was beauty. You could again hang your laundry in the west wind. And the land, some of it wounded and bleeding, could begin to heal.
My wife and I met on this land. Our paths intersected on this arresting thrust-faulted landscape where a wind-shaped pygmy forest characterized by ancient limber pines and whitebark pines reached up to towering cliffs and a spiritual power-peak known as Crowsnest Mountain. We met amid the rubble of the 1903 Frank Slide, North America’s deadliest rock avalanche, and one of Alberta’s worst life-claiming disasters. My employment with the government enabled me to work for more than a decade with geologists, geophysicists and geotechnical engineers engaged in deformation monitoring of Turtle Mountain, producer of the 1903 Frank Slide.
Turtle Mountain, within its current state of structural collapse, is forecast to produce a future rockslide capable of claiming human life, crossing the Crowsnest River valley, and inundating the Canadian Pacific Railway line and Highway 3. When will this occur? No one knows.
Following my government employment, and during the 100th anniversary ceremony of the Frank Slide, then Premier Ralph Klein announced the government’s commitment to renew and upgrade the Turtle Mountain monitoring program. I was asked to join this new deformation monitoring team.
It’s my long-range exposure to the ongoing threat imposed by Turtle Mountain that causes me to express concern today for the potential of close-proximity mine blasts to generate seismicity that could trigger and/or otherwise accelerate and exacerbate the potential for Turtle Mountain’s well-known and already unstable structure to fail, and do this in a potentially life-threatening, catastrophic way.
I believe it’s inherently dangerous to engage in any “experiment” that adds to the known risk Turtle Mountain poses to the lives of those who pass beneath it. The mountain’s existing display of its ability to transform the valley and claim human life is, I would think, more than enough to promote profound caution, extreme restraint. There is no need to add the impact of close-proximity mine blasts to an already crumbling equation.
The people of The Pass have weathered hardship, tough times and an unthinkable litany of disasters. Perhaps nothing speaks so succinctly and with such power as the voice of those who have lived through Crowsnest Pass’s black times, people who can look at their roots and see the meagre wins and the colossal losses witnessed during their journey through life. These people, and all Canadians, stand at a crossroads today.
There are those who look favourably upon the dirty vision of returning to the vagaries of their coal-mining past. Others wish to turn their backs on the black vision of living in the back seat of someone else’s money-waving speculative ploy. I suggest that futuristic, long-range thinkers are focused on the clean air and spectacular mountains at their doorstep. They, wishing to write their own future, are inspired, willing and able to step forward into a world forged on the backbone of the Rocky Mountains, a world that embraces and draws its strength and economic viability from its long-range thinking, its world-class surroundings É a world that lies at the hallowed, sacred foot of Crowsnest Mountain.
Crowsnest Pass and the work-and-play lives of the people passing through this community embody a paradoxical puzzle, a dichotomy that places those who most love the land in conflict with those who seek to exploit it and destroy it for perceived short-term gain. I believe most people who actively choose to live within the Oldman’s headwaters love this mountainous home for its raw, wild beauty. We immerse ourselves so inextricably within this vision we began to feel we own the land, that it’s ours. In truth, however, it’s the mountains that own us. We belong to them and look to them for strength and guidance. Our mountains – they’re our hope and salvation – are not seen as sacrificial offerings.
Parting questions: Do Albertans wish to destroy their headwaters heritage and cripple their future for someone else’s short-term gain? Do Albertans and Canadians stand in support of levelling mountains and adding to Canada’s needless contribution to global warming?
David McIntyre holds a MSc from the College Of The Environment, University of Washington and is a strong advocate for the long-range economic and ecological worth of intact landscapes.