Water contamination fears drive landowner demands for judicial review of government decision to lift roadblocks to future development
Several Alberta ranchers and First Nations have launched legal bids to put a halt to a provincial decision easing the development of open-pit coal mines on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
The ranchers fear it will not only harm their cattle operations near the headwaters of the Oldman River but also risk polluting water used downstream by farmers and communities, such as Lethbridge and as far east as Saskatchewan.
“(The headwaters) just supply really pure, clean water, and once they destroy that, we can never get it back,” said Mac Blades of the Rocking P Ranch near Nanton, Alta. “There is no reclaiming an open-pit mine.”
Along with John Smith and Laura Laing of Plateau Cattle Co., Blades is asking for a judicial review of a provincial decision ending a 44-year-old Alberta policy that regulated surface coal mining on the eastern slopes.
The request is to be heard by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary for two days during the week of Jan. 18, said lawyer Richard Harrison of Wilson Laycraft.
Siksika First Nation, Kainai First Nation, and Bearspaw First Nation have applied for intervenor status, he said. A separate bid for a judicial review has also been launched by Siksika and Kainai, along with a third request by Whitefish Lake First Nation and Ermineskin Cree Nation, he said.
Several sites are already being considered by Australian-based mining companies, including within the Municipal District of Ranchland No. 66 southwest of Nanton, said councillor Cam Gardner. The end of the policy opened up about 3.7 million acres across the length of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains to potential development, most likely for metallurgical coal for export to markets such as Asia, he said.
He feared open-pit coal mines could result in the Oldman River system becoming contaminated with everything from selenium to heavy metals such as chromium and arsenic. Such pollution has been observed from similar mines on British Columbia’s side of the Rockies, he said.
Many ranches along Alberta’s eastern slopes are multi-generational, with some predating the formation of the province in 1905, he said. Open-pit coal mines in one of the most beautiful areas of Canada would be a “sacrilege. I actually don’t have words for the destruction of the area we’re talking about,” said Gardner, who is also a rancher.
Much of the land within Ranchland No. 66 involves fee simple mineral rights, meaning the provincial government will receive no royalties. The coal policy included a mining tax covering some of such lands, but that ended when the policy was rescinded, he said.
“I really am mystified because the total royalties for the entire coal industry added together in all of Alberta — above ground, below ground, thermal and metallurgical coal — when you add it all together is about $20 million.”
Alberta taxpayers could also be exposed to a multibillion-dollar liability for things such as site cleanup if coal companies go bankrupt, he said, pointing to the rising cost of orphaned oil and gas wells.
“The only leg of our economy that’s significantly functioning at this point is agriculture, and I don’t think that placing these coal mines in the headwaters of the very water that sustains our agricultural industry in Alberta is a good plan at all.”
Climate change is making irrigated land ever-more important in a region that was already relatively dry, said Gardner. Farmers do not need to be further burdened with open-pit coal mines, he said.
“If I was trying to sell potatoes or beef off that Oldman River irrigation system, I definitely know that those people downstream, it’s going to make it a lot harder to sell their products if there’s a conscious perception that there are heavy metals in them.”
Gardner finds it telling that the provincial government is not “crowing this (coal) plan from the rooftops. If it’s such an amazing economic opportunity for Alberta, you would think they’d be promoting it. It’s so quiet that most people haven’t even heard about this.”
Although Ranchland No. 66 could see massive increases in tax revenues from open-pit coal mining, it opposes such development due to what it sees as the overall negative impact, he said. However, roads for coal exploration already make up a third of the total roads in the municipal district.
Harrison said the coal policy was implemented in 1976 under then Premier Peter Lougheed after several years of public input and review. It included extensive public hearings in about 10 different locations across Alberta ranging from Coleman and Lethbridge to Calgary and Camrose.
“I think that the impetus of it was really because of the large-scale impact that coal mining has on the landscape, especially open-pit coal mining because essentially you’re carving away a mountain and replacing it with a 200-metre pit.… and so I think probably the government of that time really wanted to make sure that it got it right.”
Public concerns ranged from protecting water and native grassland to recreation, said Harrison.