It all began when Alberta’s United Conservative Party government rescinded a decades-old policy that prevented coal companies from surface mining in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
The decision came into effect in June in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was lauded by Energy Minister Sonya Savage as a way to “help attract new investment for an important industry.”
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.
And just before Christmas, news broke that First Nations and landowners are seeking to take Alberta to court over the policy change. Submissions requesting a judicial review argue the government failed in its obligation to consult with those affected by land-use decisions, The Canadian Press reported. The requests are set to be heard in court in January.
“For the general public, if they look west when they’re driving the Cowboy Trail, that landscape’s going to change,” Laing said in the fall.
That left us wondering: what will the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains look like if these proposed open-pit mines go ahead?
We looked west to B.C., where an industry to churn out steel-making coal has been operating for years.
In B.C.’s Elk Valley, just over the Alberta border, the coal industry has been at the centre of an ongoing debate pitting economic benefits against a growing environmental crisis.
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.
These mines, among the biggest in B.C., operate 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Now, more mines like these are poised to open up the eastern slopes in Alberta.
Here’s a closer look.
— With files from Carol Linnitt
Update Dec. 24, 2020 at 10:00 p.m. MST: This article was updated to note that landowners and First Nations submitted requests for a judicial review of Alberta’s decision to rescind the coal policy.
Update Feb. 24, 2021 at 11:00 a.m. MST: This article was updated to note that one of the mines pictured is a suspended site in Alberta currently in the process of restarting operations.