Coal consultation concerns conservationist

The executive director of the Alberta Wilderness Association complains about a lack of details from the government

Ranchers fighting open-pit coal mining in Alberta should not be reassured by a provincial announcement that public consultations on a modern coal policy will begin March 29, says a wilderness advocate.

“I don’t think they should be complacent about the situation at all,” said Ian Urquhart, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“I think that until the government makes it absolutely clear that Isolation South, Elan South and Cabin Ridge cannot go ahead … those ranchers have every reason to be very concerned about the future of water on the Eastern Slopes and what that’s going to mean for their operations.”

As part of a brief statement on Feb. 23, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced a date of March 29 for the start of public consultations about issues such as open-pit coal mining on the Eastern Slopes.

“The details of the process will be announced before consultations begin,” she said.

“With the input of Albertans, a modern coal policy will protect the areas Albertans cherish while allowing responsible resource development in the appropriate places.”

The provincial government announced Feb. 8 it was fully reinstating a 45-year-old coal policy implemented in 1976 that limited open-pit coal mining in much of the Eastern Slopes.

The policy had been rescinded effective June 1, 2020, sparking widespread public opposition ranging from ranchers and farmers to Canadian entertainers such as Corb Lund, Jann Arden and k. d. lang.

It raised fears of toxic levels of selenium caused by open-pit coal mining contaminating water in the Oldman River system, potentially affecting ranches, irrigated farms and communities across much of Alberta.

Laura Laing and her husband, John Smith, of the Plateau Cattle Co. near Nanton, Alta., joined neighbour Mac Blades of the Rocking P Ranch to ask for a judicial review of the decision to rescind the policy. After a recent court hearing, a decision was pending into the request.

An investor presentation by Atrum Coal was outlined during the hearing. It detailed the potential development of a large open-pit coal mine in Atrum’s Isolation South area, along with three satellite pits in Elan South. Plans included a proposed conveyor belt stretching 36 kilometres.

Other nearby projects include Cabin Ridge by Cabin Ridge Project Ltd.

Savage said Feb. 8 she recognized that rescinding the 1976 coal policy “has caused tremendous fear and anxiety, that Alberta’s majestic Eastern Slopes would be forever damaged by mountaintop and open-pit coal mining. Let me be clear, this will not happen in Alberta.”

However, she said six projects are being explored, with four of them undertaken before the coal policy was rescinded.

“This means that core samples are being taken, perhaps roads are being built; it does not mean that a project will be developed.”

During the Feb. 8 announcement, she said “no mountaintop removal will be permitted, and all of the restrictions under the 1976 coal categories are to apply on surface mining in Category 2 land. “Number two, all future coal development and coal lease sales on Category 2 land is to be paused indefinitely pending consultations on a new modern coal policy.”

However, Urquhart said he is troubled by the lack of details provided by the provincial government, including about the upcoming public consultations March 29.

As part of an email Feb. 12 to Kavi Bal, director of strategic planning for the Office of the Premier, Urquhart asked that the six projects be identified. After not receiving a reply, Urquhart reprimanded Bal in an email on Feb.17.

Bal apologized that day and said “lack of response was not intentional but a missed email on my part. I will look into your request this morning and circle back with you.”

He released details about the projects via email March 1. They are Aries (Ram River Coal), Blackstone (Valory Resources/Black Eagle Mining), Cabin Ridge (Cabin Ridge Project Ltd.), Chinook (Montem Resources), Elan-Elan South (Atrum Coal), and Elan-Isolation South (Atrum Coal).

Despite statements by Savage, Urquhart said there is a lack of clarity about the differences between things such as mountaintop removal and open-pit coal mining, and how the six projects fall under the 1976 coal policy.

“I think it’s clear to me that these six projects theoretically … could apply for approval.”

He called for an independent third-party panel of experts to gather public input on a new coal policy for Alberta.

“I would have hoped that the government would appreciate that through their actions, Albertans don’t trust them anymore.”

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