Canada: Alberta’s controversial coal policy unearths anger

Published by MAC on 2021-01-25
Source: Canadian Press, Global News (2021-01-26)

Rivers and streams have already been heavily contaminated by mining.

Public opposition to the Alberta government’s plan to expand coal mining in the Rocky Mountains is growing. An environmental review into one coal project has received more than 4000 statements of concern from members of the public. After weeks of public pressure, the government has cancelled 11 coal leases and is pausing future sales in former Category 2 lands, Energy Minister announced. The decision came as more than 100,000 signatures had been collected on two petitions opposing mining. The province’s plan for large-scale expansion of the industry is fuelling widespread criticism that includes concerns over selenium pollution. Rivers and streams have already been heavily contaminated by coal mining, unreported government data suggests.

See also:

2020-07-17 Coal gets doomed even further by Covid-19

2020-01-23 End-of-Week Essay: How Capital is galloping away from Coal

Contaminant from coal mines already high in some Alberta rivers: unreported data

Some Alberta rivers and streams have already been heavily contaminated by coal mining, unreported government data suggests.

https://www.richmond-news.com/national-news/contaminant-from-coal-mines-already-high-in-some-alberta-rivers-unreported-data-3289980

Canadian Press

January 25, 2021

Some Alberta rivers and streams have already been heavily contaminated by coal mining, unreported government data suggests.

The province’s plan for large-scale expansion of the industry is fuelling widespread criticism that includes concerns over selenium pollution. The data shows that same contaminant has been found for years at high levels downstream of three mines and never publicly reported.

The findings raise questions about Alberta Environment, said a former senior official who has seen the data.  

“There were lots of (selenium) numbers and it was consistently above the water quality guidelines and in many cases way higher,” said Bill Donahue, the department’s one-time executive director of science. “Why did Alberta Environment sit on these data for easily the last 10 to 15 years?”

Donahue left the department in 2018 after the NDP government of the day dissolved the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Evaluation and Reporting Agency, an independent body intended to fill information gaps.

Before resigning, he had become concerned about selenium in the Gregg and McLeod rivers and in Luscar Creek, all in the Rocky Mountain foothills east of Jasper, Alta. He took the data with him when he left and recently analyzed it for The Canadian Press.  

“The results are stark,” he said.

Since at least the late 1990s, Alberta Environment has monitored water upstream and downstream from the Luscar, Gregg River and Cheviot mines.

Cheviot, owned by Teck Resources, still operates. The Gregg River and Luscar operations closed in 2000 and 2003, respectively. Gregg River, now managed by Coal Valley Resources, is considered reclaimed. Luscar, managed by Teck, is about 50 per cent reclaimed.

Donahue looked at water samples from 1998 through 2016, taken upstream and downstream on the same day.  

He found that selenium levels averaged almost six times higher in the McLeod River downstream from the Cheviot mine. They were nearly nine times higher in the Gregg River and 11 times higher in Luscar Creek, despite years of reclamation.

Selenium levels in all the samples from the Gregg River and Luscar Creek exceeded those considered safe for aquatic life: by nearly four times in the Gregg River and nearly nine times in Luscar Creek.

The level was exceeded in about one-quarter of the McLeod River samples.

“This is not a subtle story,” said Donahue. “This is shocking.”

Alberta Environment and Parks spokesman John Muir said the department routinely monitors selenium at 89 waterways across Alberta.

“We have key experts working on our own water quality studies to better understand the conditions of watersheds and aquatic life downstream of coal mining operations,” he said. “(We) will make those findings publicly available.”

Muir pointed out that all raw monitoring data is available on a searchable database.

He said the mines in question pre-date modern regulations and technology.  

An Alberta government document on reclaiming the mine sites states: “Current assessments indicate there is no risk to humans who drink water or eat fish containing excessive amounts of selenium.”

Selenium is a naturally occurring element vital in small amounts but toxic in excess.

In fish, it can damage the liver, kidney and heart. It can reduce the number of viable eggs a fish can produce and lead to deformed spine, head, mouth, and fins.

In humans, it can cause nausea, vomiting, hair loss and fatigue.

The last time Alberta Environment reported on selenium in the three waterways was 2006. Using data collected in 2000 and 2001, it concluded “selenium concentrations in rainbow and brook trout were usually greater than toxicity effects thresholds.”

Why the subsequent silence? asks Donahue.

“They knew when a report was published that selenium was a problem in these systems related to coal mining. It draws a lot of questions.”

Last May, the United Conservative government revoked a policy that protected much of the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains from open-pit coal mining. The area is home to endangered species, the water source for much of the southern prairies, and one of the province’s best-loved landscapes.

Hundreds of exploratory drill sites and kilometres of access roads have now been scribed into its wilderness, documents from Alberta’s energy regulator show. One open-pit coal mine proposal is before a joint federal-provincial review panel.

More than 100,000 Albertans have signed petitions opposing the plans. Opponents range from small-town mayors to ranchers to popular entertainment figures, including Corb Lund and Jann Arden.

Mining opponents point across the boundary into British Columbia, where selenium from coal mines in the Elk Valley has created serious contamination problems.

The lingering contamination from the three Alberta mines shows the stakes are high, said Donahue.

“These pollution problems have persisted long after the closure of coal mines.”


As hearing ends, fly fishing businessman weighs in on Alberta’s controversial coal policy

Jill Croteau

Global News 

https://globalnews.ca/news/7589496/alberta-court-hearing-coal-mining-policy/

January 20, 2021

A Court of Queen’s Bench hearing on the controversial coal policy wrapped up Wednesday. The province of Alberta is trying to compel Justice Richard Neufeld to dismiss an application for a judicial review.

The case centres on a UCP government decision to allow open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Richard Harrison, the lawyer for two ranchers who are seeking the judicial review, argued the energy minister didn’t have authority to make that decision, one that was made without consultation with the public.

“To remove the protection of land in place for 44 years without consultation, or even a phone call, doesn’t do my clients justice,” Harrison said.

Justice Neufeld hopes to deliver a decision within the next couple of months.

Many people across the province are monitoring the case.

David Blair owns Fish Tales Fly Shop and has been open to educating his customers about the potential impacts.

“To add open-pit coal mining to the most sensitive areas is a risk nobody should be taking and it literally affects the future of our business,” Blair said.

He hopes the court forces the province to reconsider its June 2020 decision.

“Ultimately I would like to believe politicians listen to the people and I think people in Alberta are speaking very clearly about this issue,” Blair said.

The controversy has been the topic of many conversations.

Freelance graphic designer Edwin Mundt runs The Big Steak Graphic Design and created a T-shirt for supporters of restoring the policy.

“We live in a soundbite era and everything comes down to a symbol or meme or logo, and people wearing that can identify with the movement,” Mundt said.

His design mimics the provincial crest and is a nod to former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, who created the coal policy in 1976. Partial proceeds from the sale of the shirts will support the fight to restore the policy.

“I’m a longtime Albertan and I agree with what a lot of people are saying about keeping the watershed pure and the fallout from mining would be too devastating.”


Alberta cancels 11 coal leases, pauses future sales

Dave Dormer

https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/alberta-cancels-11-coal-leases-pauses-future-sales-1.5272120

January 18, 2021

After weeks of public pressure, Alberta has cancelled 11 coal leases and is pausing future sales in former Category 2 lands, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced Monday.

“We have listened carefully to the concerns raised in recent days, and thank those who spoke up with passion,” she said in a statement.

“I want to be absolutely clear: Under the current terms, just as it was under the 1976 coal policy, coal leases do not allow for exploration, development or production without a comprehensive regulatory review.

“A lease holder has no more right to set foot on lease property than any other Albertan. The same rules apply now, as before.”

The cancelled leases are a small portion of the coal exploration leases the government has issued since revoking a policy that protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies — home to endangered species as well as the water source for millions downstream — since 1976.

The decision came as more than 100,000 signatures had been collected on two petitions opposing increased mining on two related fronts.

One, sponsored by environmental groups on Change.org, was addressed to the provincial government and had 77,000 signatures Monday afternoon — an increase of about 10,000 over the weekend.

Another, sponsored by a private citizen and addressed to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, had nearly 28,000 names opposing the Benga coal project in southern Alberta, which is undergoing a federal-provincial environmental review.

As well, a Facebook site called Protect Alberta’s Rockies and Headwaters has more than doubled its membership over the last week to more than 10,000. The Benga review has received more than 4,000 statements of concern from members of the public, the vast majority opposing the project.

Alberta’s NDP Environment Critic Marlin Schmidt issued a statement soon after the announcement was made.

“Today’s backpedaling from the UCP on their removal of protections for Category 2 public lands is a small victory for the thousands upon thousands of Albertans who have spoken up against this UCP government’s reckless decision to rip up Peter Lougheed’s coal policy,” he said.

“While the UCP government has agreed to cancel the 11 most recently issued coal leases, there are another eight leases they sold last May that remain in effect.

“Further, they still have not committed to reinstating the coal policy and to consulting before making further changes. Without these commitments, these precious wild spaces are still under threat.”

Katie Morrison, the conservation director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) said in an interview that the move was “actually not that significant of a change,” saying it still leaves 420,000 hectares of land unprotected, including the area around Grassy Mountain, which has been the source of media interest because of comments from country musicians Corb Lund, Paul Brandt and kd lang opposing mining.

“It’s a step that they’re feeling the pressure,” Morrison said, “but I think it still shows they are still not listening to Albertans.”

“Albertans are saying we don’t want you doing open pit coal mining. We want the coal policy back and this announcement in no way addresses those concerns of Albertans.”

Savage said the pause “will provide our government with the opportunity to ensure that the interests of Albertans, as owners of mineral resources, are protected.”

“Coal development remains an important part of the Western Canadian economy, especially in rural communities, but we are committed to demonstrating that it will only be developed responsibly under Alberta’s modern regulatory standards and processes,” she said.

“This decision has no impact on existing coal projects currently under regulatory review.”



Public opposition growing: Petitions against Alberta coal mines top 100K signatures

The Canadian Press 

https://toronto.citynews.ca/2021/01/18/public-opposition-growing-petitions-against-alberta-coal-mines-top-100k-signatures/

Jan 18, 2021

Public opposition to the Alberta government’s plan to expand coal mining in the Rocky Mountains appears to be growing.

More than 100,000 signatures have been collected on two petitions opposing the move, one addressed to the federal government and one to the province.

A Facebook site called Protect Alberta’s Rockies and Headwaters has more than doubled its membership over the last week to more than 10,000 people.

An environmental review into one coal project has received more than 4,000 statements of concern from members of the public.

Government documents that have surfaced show three more recreation areas in the mountains and foothills are surrounded by coal exploration leases — for a total of eight.

SOURCE: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=14485

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