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Strip mining the eastern slopes of Alberta's rocky mountains threatens biodiversity and watersheds.

4 min read

The Ermineskin and Whitefish Lake First Nations, along with ranchers, have filed two lawsuits against Alberta’s government after the province rescinded protections for the eastern slopes of the rocky mountains. Alberta’s decision will no longer require any coal mining to be done underground, and that prohibited mountain top coal mining. As a result, the eastern slope’s biodiversity, along with the watershed for drinking water for millions of Albertans, is at risk of severe disruption.

The United Conservative government, according to leaked documents, will argue to the court that the rules that have been in place since 1976 are not legislation and can be reversed unilaterally. Leased land by the government now extends along the Rockies for over 37 miles, that number is predicted to surge once the infrastructure for stip mining is in place.

This is insanity. 

Pending open-pit coal mining and exploration sites sought by Australian companies along the southeastern flank of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta.
Pending open-pit coal mining and exploration sites sought by Australian companies along the southeastern flank of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta. 

As Kara Oosterhuis of Real Agriculture notes, “What the coal policy did was it said that if there was to be coal development throughout the eastern slopes, it was to all be done underground, because of the sensitivity of those watersheds,” this action eliminates any protections for 247,000 acres of critical habitat.

The Narwhal has published images of Rocky mountaintop removal of what the strip-mining process in Alberta will look like. The photos and story written by Sharon J. Riley show the horrifying scars from a similar project underway in Elk Valley, British Columbia, at the Albertan border.

Below are a few of those images.

The Rocky Mountains along the Alberta-B.C border provide valuable habitat for wildlife. The eastern slopes serve as critical habitat for grizzlies, caribou and the Alberta population of westslope cutthroat trout, listed as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act. These mountains also contain vast deposits of metallurgical coal, used in the manufacturing of steel.
The Rocky Mountains along the Alberta-B.C border provide valuable habitat for wildlife. The eastern slopes serve as critical habitat for grizzlies, caribou, and the Alberta population of westslope cutthroat trout, listed as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act. These mountains also contain vast deposits of metallurgical coal, used in the manufacturing of steel.

Coal mines like this one, using mountaintop-removal mining techniques, are being proposed in the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.
Coal mines like this one, using mountaintop-removal mining techniques, are being proposed in the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.

In 2019, Teck Resources posted $5.5 billion in coal revenue, generated primarily in the Elk Valley. Alberta is the second-largest producer of coal in Canada and the UCP government has lauded coal mining as a way forward for the province’s economy, particularly in light of job losses in the oil patch during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alberta reported some $15.7 million in royalties earned on coal production in 2017, though this figure has been declining in recent years.
In 2019, Teck Resources posted $5.5 billion in coal revenue, generated primarily in the Elk Valley. Alberta is the second-largest producer of coal in Canada. The UCP government has lauded coal mining as a way forward for the province’s economy, particularly in light of job losses in the oil patch during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alberta reported some $15.7 million in royalties earned on coal production in 2017, though this figure has been declining in recent years.

Waste-rock piles, seen here, are a source of leaching selenium. Selenium is a naturally-occurring chemical element commonly found in coal-rich deposits. It’s essential to human cellular function and considered healthy in very small doses. However, selenium can be fatal to egg-laying animals, including fish and birds, even in small quantities. In trout, the mineral can cause deformities of the jaw and spine and reproductive failure. Teck Resources recently reported several collapses in trout populations living directly downstream of mines.
Waste-rock piles, seen here, are a source of leaching selenium. Selenium is a naturally-occurring chemical element commonly found in coal-rich deposits. It’s essential to human cellular function and considered healthy in minimal doses. However, selenium can be fatal to egg-laying animals, including fish and birds, even in small quantities. In trout, the mineral can cause deformities of the jaw and spine and reproductive failure. Teck Resources recently reported several collapses in trout populations living directly downstream of mines. 

Sharon J. Riley writes:

In short, the UCP removed a system of land classification that prohibited surface coal mining in more than a million hectares of the foothills and Rocky Mountains — areas important to First Nations and for the protection of numerous species at risk.

Marlene Poitras, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Alberta, told The Narwhal at the time it was a “backwards move,” and that the government failed to adequately consult Indigenous groups.

It wasn’t just First Nations that were upset by the announcement. Conservation groups, already worried about the loss of protected lands as the UCP government moved to de-list dozens of parks and recreation areas, warned the decision would put more landscapes in jeopardy. Then came the ranching community, concerned native grasslands and prime pasture would be destroyed.

“You’re not going to put a mountain back, you’re not going to put the native grasses back and you’re definitely not going to revert it back to pasture land,” Laura Laing, a third-generation rancher who lives west of Nanton, Alta., said in October.

Then, in December, Alberta accepted offers from Australian coal companies to mine nearly a dozen parcels of land spanning close to 2,000 hectares, seen by many as just the beginning of new coal leases in the region.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is a sneaky bastard.

Although mining has occurred in the area for more than 100 years, the use of mountaintop-removal mining in recent decades has dramatically changed the scale of the region’s mining operations. Entire mountains are carved up, with valuable metallurgical coal processed out. The remaining waste rock, which contains selenium, arsenic and nitrates, among other pollutants, is piled high in adjacent valleys where it is exposed to the elements.

She notes that the British Columbia mines operate 24 hours every single day.

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