By Lethbridge Herald Opinion on May 6, 2021.
Our Alberta Rockies, the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, our trees and trails, the animals and birds roaming its forests, the fish in its streams and rivers, the Red Deer, the Bow, the Old Man, the North and the South Saskatchewan: These were protected by policy set out in 1976 by then-premier Peter Lougheed.
Lougheed, after wide public consultation, agreed with Albertans that the eastern slopes should be preserved for recreation, tourism and, above all, watershed protection. This Coal Policy of 1976 essentially created a limited moratorium on new coal mines on the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies.
Last year, on the Friday afternoon before the 2020 May long weekend, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage quietly revoked the 1976 protection.
The following month Kenney’s government opened up 420,000 hectares of land in the Eastern Slopes for open-pit coal mining. That’s over a million acres, over 1600 square miles.
This is not the underground mining in the Elk Valley of the 1950’s.
This is strip mining – think of the Elk Valley of the past 30 years; of Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio.
First, all vegetation is removed – trees, bushes, ground cover; then the soil, and finally the top layer of rock which is dumped into an adjacent valley, until finally the coal seam is uncovered.
These “changes to vegetation, soil, and bedrock ultimately contribute to changes in surface hydrology, groundwater levels, and water flow paths.” (International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation.Â 42: 76-86.)
In our immediate future, Grassy Mountain with a project area of 4,500 hectares, is still approved to proceed as are all other projects approved after June, 2020.
[As a reminder, our climate in southern Alberta is semi-arid.
Only 15 inches of total annual precipitation saves us from living in a desert. In winter and spring, the snowpack and rain in the Eastern Slopes feed into the great prairie rivers, including the South Saskatchewan and the Oldman.
Over the years, those rivers provide us with billions of dollars worth of crops as well as clean water for our towns and cities. That said we are at our outer limit with respect to water. The South Saskatchewan River Basin is closed for new water licenses.
In the nine short months since Minister Savage’s cancellation of the protection, we see plans emerging for half a dozen new mines, and at least one – Grassy Mountain – is within shouting distance of being approved.
Grassy Mountain’s project area alone is 4500 hectares (over 11,000 acres or about 17.2 sections).
Our semi-arid climate gives us cause for concern specifically related to water. We are concerned with volume, erratic flow, and quality.
Grassy Mountain has requested diversion of water from within their project area (so from Blairmore and Gold Creeks) AND from the Crowsnest River. The total requested is 308,000 cubic meters annually.
In household language, that’s over 67 million gallons or 300 million litres of water. That’s a lot of water which will not be flowing out of the Eastern Slopes into southern Alberta rivers, irrigation reservoirs, and water treatment plants. That total is for just one mine with more to come.
How can these diversions not have an impact on the volume of water available for use in southern Alberta?
Remember the heavy rainfall we get in June? Our backyards turn green instantly, our flowers jump out of the ground and out front, our roads are inches deep in water and there are small floods at the drains.
Ground cover in the mountains absorb this water, releasing it gradually. Strip mines are like a paved roads – perfect conditions for flash flooding. While our overall supply of water will decrease, erratic flow and flooding may, in fact, increase.
Finally, there is not a single coal mine anywhere in the world where the contaminants problem has been solved.
Selenium and arsenic are both common contaminants related to coalmining. The US government has made a formal complaint to BC about selenium contamination in the Elk River which flows across the border, through Montana and into Lake Kookanusa.
There is another factor unique to southern Albert and that is our chinook winds. Every spring, we have winds of 100+ kilometers an hour blow through the Pass, right over the planned mine sites, bringing dust onto our fields, our yards, and even into our homes. What happens when these winds carry coal dust laced with selenium across southern Alberta?
Recall that the Eastern Slopes were originally protected because our rivers flow from them.
Will the open pit mines change the landscape so drastically that our water supply is jeopardized from the west side of the province to the Saskatchewan border and beyond?
Like many Albertans, my grandparents farmed in the Dirty 30’s and lost the farm. After removing the protective top layer of vegetation, they watched as their top soil blew into Saskatchewan. Are we creating our own 21st century version of the Dirty 30’s, without a path to recovery?
So you know, Benga Mining Ltd. operates as Riversdale Resources in Alberta. The Board of Directors are all Australian; basically, Benga Mining is an Australian company with no stake in our province.
Benga Mining started talking to our politicians in 2012, started buying land in 2013, and by 2015 had a fully-developed plan for the Grassy Mountain mine. They submitted that first plan to the Alberta Energy Regulator and the federal Environment Department (now IAAC). After receiving feedback from both agencies, they sent in their final proposal in 2016 and that’s when the environmental review began. According to their own website, Benga, clearly convinced that nothing would stand in the way of this mine, hired a General Manager for the Grassy Mountain Project in 2017. In 2019, Benga Mining told their shareholders that the Alberta Government was going to rescind the Coal Policy.
The COVID lockdown started in March of 2020. Three months later, on the Friday afternoon of the May long weekend, the Alberta Government kept their promise to Benga and rescinded the Policy. Soon after began the sale of 1.4 million hectares of coal exploration leases.
Do you recall any press releases? Because I sure don’t. The first I heard of it was from a Letter to the Editor in the Lethbridge Herald in November of 2020.
The deadline for public comment to the Joint Federal Review Panel on the Grassy Mountain Proposal was January 15th. Benga Mining has been talking to our politicians and taking concrete steps to start up this mine for 9 years while we assumed that our Eastern Slopes were protected by The Coal Policy of 1976. Our politicians only went public after word got out and various groups discovered the details – they seem to talk to us only if someone catches them out.
Our government talks about the jobs and economic benefits which will accrue from the mines. In Australia, coal companies pay royalties of 7%. In Alberta, Australian coal companies will be paying 1%. We are giving away our natural resources in return for jobs. No other developed country does that.
The report from the Federal Review Panel regarding Grassy Mountain will be made public by June 18th and the Federal Minister of the Environment will make his decision by mid-October.
No other mines will be reviewed federally. Reviews of those mines will be made by the Alberta Energy Regulator. That Regulator rarely refuses approval for any project.
If you care about our Rockies and the waters flowing from them, if you care about our prairies and the rivers running through them, if you care about the environment our children will inherit, write to your MLA – write to every MLA! And to the federal Minister of the Environment.
Benga’s nine-year long process is drawing to a close, as is our nine-month window with public comment to the Joint Review Panel already closed as of January. Letters and petitions are our last resort.
Let’s raise our voices and be heard.