Alberta unveils details of coal consultations

Producers launch two independent studies to look at the potential impact of open-pit coal mining in the Eastern Slopes

The provincial government has appointed what it called an independent external committee to lead what it describes as a “comprehensive public engagement to inform the development of a modern coal policy for Alberta.”

The five-member committee will be responsible for designing and conducting the engagement, said a provincial statement. In the meantime, Albertans are invited to share their thoughts in an initial survey at alberta.ca/coal-policy-engagement.aspx, it said.

“The survey is available online and will be open until April 19. Further details about the engagement process will be designed and shared by the committee following the survey closing.”

The committee, which is to be supported with a budget of $500,000, is to present a final report to energy minister Sonya Savage by Nov. 15.

“Public engagement is about having an open conversation, and that dialogue starts today,” she said during a news conference March 29.

After public opposition ranging from producers to Canadian entertainers such as Corb Lund, Jann Arden and k.d. lang, Savage announced Feb. 8 the provincial government was fully reinstating a 45-year-old coal policy implemented in 1976.

It was rescinded last year by the provincial government, easing the development of open-pit coal mines on the Eastern Slopes.

The decision raised fears of toxic levels of contaminants such as selenium entering the Oldman River system, potentially affecting everyone from ranchers and farmers to communities across much of Alberta.

As someone who grew up in rural Alberta, Savage said March 29, “I know that Albertans have tremendous pride in our beautiful province.

“I’ve also learned that Albertans have a wide range of opinions on the development of Alberta’s coal resources. As a result, I’ve decided that the best course of action is to appoint an external committee to lead a comprehensive public engagement that will inform the province’s long-term approach to coal development.”

The committee’s members include chair Ron Wallace, described in the provincial statement as an internationally recognized expert in regulatory policies associated with environmental assessment and monitoring. He was also a permanent member of the National Energy Board.

Other members include Fred Bradley, a former provincial environment minister under former premier Peter Lougheed who later served as chair of the Alberta Research Council; Natalie Charlton, executive director of the Hinton and District Chamber of Commerce and an advocate for alternative energy; Bill Trafford, president of the Livingstone Landowners Group; and Eric North Peigan, a small business owner and member of the Piikani First Nation.

“We’re only starting the conversation today, and I encourage Albertans to see this survey as an icebreaker,” said Savage, adding consultations will include Indigenous communities.

She said the consultations will definitely not have a “pre-determined outcome.… We’ve said several times, this is a coal policy that will be made by Albertans.”

Meanwhile, producers fighting against open-pit coal mining in the Eastern Slopes have launched two independent studies to look at the potential impact of such projects, said Laura Laing of the Plateau Cattle Co.

A study into air quality affected by things such as dust potentially caused by open-pit coal mining is being funded by the Pekisko Group, which consists of ranchers and farmers between the Highwood and Oldman rivers in southwestern Alberta, she said during an interview March 26.

And the nearby Livingstone Landowners Group is funding a study on the likely effect on water quality and quantity due to such projects, she added.

Laing spoke the same day a record-breaking fine of $60 million was assessed against Teck Coal, a subsidiary of Teck Resources. The company pleaded guilty under the federal Fisheries Act after releasing selenium and calcite into the Elk and Fording rivers in British Columbia in 2012.

Ranchers such as Laing have pointed to open-pit coal mining by Teck in the Elk Valley area of B.C. as a potential precursor of what could happen in nearby Alberta.

Hundreds of people took part in an anti-coal development protest March 27 hosted by the Niitsitapi Water Protectors along the Reconciliation Bridge in Calgary. Niitsitapi is a word the Indigenous Kainai, Piikani and Siksika people of Alberta use to refer to themselves.

“Open-pit coal mining will degrade the environment and its life-sustaining gift of clear and clean water,” said a statement on the group’s website.

Mandy Olsgard, a senior toxicologist and risk assessor with Integrated Toxicology Solutions, will conduct the independent study into air quality funded by the Pekisko Group. She is a former senior toxicologist at the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), which reviews the development of oil, oilsands and coal resources in the province.

She said she left the AER due to concerns the provincial government has too much influence over the organization, resulting in what she called economic rather than science-based decisions.

“And it was really hard to effect change from inside the organization.”

Plans for open-pit coal mining that include a proposed conveyor belt stretching 36 kilometres were mentioned in an investor presentation by Atrum Coal. It outlined the potential development of a large open-pit coal mine in Atrum’s Isolation South area, along with three satellite pits in Elan South.

The conveyor belt will cut through the grazing lease of Mac Blades’ Rocking P Ranch near Nanton, Alta., said lawyer Richard Harrison during a court hearing Jan. 19-20. Such development will also impact Laing and her husband John Smith of the nearby Plateau Cattle Co.

Atrum announced March 26 it was pausing its Elan project, citing the upcoming coal policy consultations in Alberta. The decision caused shares in the Australian company to plummet 70 percent.

Olsgard will model and predict air quality concentrations for particulate matter from coal development, which can potentially include trace elements such as arsenic. These will be compared to limits set by regulations for the areas where the ranchers live, helping determine potential impacts on the health of livestock as well as humans, she said.

The study could be useful for situations such as companies applying for approval of open-pit coal mines, as well as help government officials with the creation of provincial policies, she said.

The Alces Group and Integral Ecology Group will conduct the water study funded by the Livingstone Landowners Group.

“The Oldman River watershed is one of the driest regions in Alberta and is facing increasing uncertainty in water balance because of increasing demand and reductions in water supply,” said lead consultant Brad Stelfox of the Alces Group in a statement released by the Livingstone Landowners Group.

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