Alberta is planning new mountaintop-removal coal mines. Here’s what that looks like

Debate has swirled as Alberta opens up a large swath of the Rocky Mountains’ eastern slopes to new coal mining. B.C.’s Elk Valley offers a preview of what may come next

It all began when Alberta’s United Conservative Party government rescinded a decades-old policy that prevented coal companies from surface mining in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.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

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. Photo: Callum Gunn

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

Elk Valley coal mines

Mountaintop-removal coal mining, as seen here at Teck Resources’ Fording River operations in Elk Valley, just across the Alberta-B.C. border, is a form of surface mining that strips large portions of a mountain away. “You’re not going to put a mountain back,” said Laura Laing, a third-generation rancher who lives west of Nanton, Alta. Photo: Callum Gunn

Elk Valley coal mine

The Elk Valley mines, owned and operated by Teck Resources, are a major source of metallurgical coal, used in the manufacturing of steel. The vast majority of coal mined from these B.C. mountaintops is exported overseas. Proposals for new mines are largely coming from Australian-based companies, including one owned by billionaire Gina Rinehart. Photo: Callum Gunn

Close to 2,000 hectares of the eastern slopes in Alberta have been offered to Australian coal companies that would mine the mountainsides for steel-making coal. Conservation advocates fear this is just the beginning. Photo: Callum Gunn

Trees must first be removed prior to mountaintop-removal mining. Once the area is cleared, explosives are used to blast away rock and other debris, known as overburden, to access the coal below. Photo: Callum Gunn

Elk Valley mines

The mines are carved up using a technique called “cross valley fill.” In essence, the tops of coal-rich mountains are mined away through the creation of terraces. The coal is processed for export while the remaining rock is dumped into adjacent valleys, forming enormous waste-rock piles. This mine site in Alberta was suspended in 1983. The company has plans to restart coal mining. Photo: Callum Gunn

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. Photo: Callum Gunn

Elk Valley coal mines Teck Resources

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. Photo: Callum Gunn

Eastern slopes coal mining

The Alberta government’s plans have attracted the ire of ranchers and landowners in the southwest corner of the province who say coal mining is short-sighted and rife with environmental impacts that will affect their livelihoods. Photo: Callum Gunn

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.

Sharon is an award-winning journalist based in Edmonton. Her writing has also been published by The Walrus, Harper’s, The Tyee…

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