Country stars speak out against coal mining

"One of the things I'd like to point out is that people get kind of annoyed when some entertainers talk about current events, and I agree with them most of the time," said Corb Lund, whose songs include Little Foothills Heaven. "But I'm not speaking as a singer. I'm speaking as a sixth-generation Albertan who's got ranch land here and is directly affected, so anybody who tells me to shut up and sing has to take a second think about that." | Noah Fallis photo

Canadian country musicians are opposing an Alberta decision easing the development of open-pit coal mines along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

“One of the things I’d like to point out is that people get kind of annoyed when some entertainers talk about current events, and I agree with them most of the time,” said Corb Lund, whose songs include Little Foothills Heaven.

Related stories: Water allocation change proposed in Alberta and Alberta ranchers resist plans to ease coal mining rules

“But I’m not speaking as a singer. I’m speaking as a sixth-generation Albertan who’s got ranch land here and is directly affected, so anybody who tells me to shut up and sing has to take a second think about that.”

Lund said friend and Canadian country legend Ian Tyson, who has a ranch near Longview, Alta., is also against open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes.

They have been joined by country singers Paul Brandt, who expressed his opposition in an Instagram post Jan. 14, and by Terri Clark in a Twitter post Jan. 15. “The Canadian Rockies are a part of my soul,” she wrote.

As many as five to six open-pit coal mines could be built in the eastern slopes, said John Smith of the Plateau Cattle Co. near Nanton, Alta. The majority will likely be concentrated near the headwaters of the Oldman River system, he said.

Due to potential water contamination from toxic pollutants such as selenium, such projects risk affecting the livelihoods of ranchers and irrigated farmers downstream across much of Alberta, he said. Teck Resources Ltd. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to remove selenium from water affected by its coal mining operations just across the border in British Columbia’s Elk Valley area.

“As an Albertan who enjoys fly-fishing in our clear waters and spending time in the outdoors, I hope our government listens, consults and re-considers,” wrote Brandt on Instagram. “We can’t put short-sighted economic benefit ahead of long-term consequences that could devastate our people and land for generations to come.”

A petition on Change.org seeking to stop open-pit coal mining in the Canadian Rockies had received more than 75,000 signatures as of Jan. 18. Meanwhile, the

Alberta Wilderness Association asked provincial residents Jan. 17 to e-mail their MLAs as well as premier Jason Kenney, provincial Energy Minister Sonya Savage, and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon.

Smith and his wife, Laura Laing, along with Mac Blades of the Rocking P Ranch, have launched a legal challenge to a provincial decision last year rescinding a 44-year-old policy limiting surface coal mining in much of the eastern slopes.

They have asked for a judicial review of the decision, arguing the provincial government failed to properly consult stakeholders. A hearing by the Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary about the request was to be held Jan. 19 to 20.

The provincial government is also separately considering changes to a water allocation order for the area upstream of the Oldman reservoir. The proposal, which is in its initial stages, aims to set aside more water for open-pit coal mine development.

Besides providing drinking water for everyone from cities to First Nations, the Oldman River system “is a big part of the irrigating water for the southern Alberta farmers, and the Taber corn and potato guys, and the sugar beets and all that stuff,” said Lund.

He said he was struck by the lack of public input and how quickly the provincial government is acting on the issue.

“It seems real, real quiet,” said friend Scott Holtman, a farmer near Taber, Alta. “There’s murmurings, and nobody — and that is when you ask me what my friends and family and colleagues and general people on the street think, they’re shocked that something of this magnitude was not discussed.”

Lund discussed the decision rescinding the coal policy with ministers Savage and Nixon. “They were nice. It was respectful,” said Lund.

“This is nothing personal. But I was unsatisfied with their answers entirely, like they told me that nothing has really changed and they told me that we should rely on the Alberta Energy Regulator (to review the impact of proposed open-pit coal mining projects).”

However, the provincial government recently offered leases to mining companies for exploration in areas that were once off-limits to open-pit coal mining. Coal exploration typically involves drilling and road construction.

After holding public hearings, a joint federal-provincial environmental review panel is currently preparing a report into the proposed $800-million Grassy Mountain open-pit coal mine near Blairmore, Alta. Benga Mining Ltd. plans to develop a 3,700-acre site near the Crowsnest Pass about seven kilometres north of Blairmore, Alta.

“As proposed, the production capacity of the project would be a maximum of 4.5 million tonnes of processed coal per year, over a mine-life of about 25 years,” said a federal statement.

The deadline to provide comments and submissions to the three-member review panel was Jan. 15. The report is to be submitted to federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson.

Coal exploration is being conducted in areas such as Cabin Ridge in the Municipal District of Ranchland No. 66 southwest of Nanton, potentially affecting land used by Smith and Laing. As much as a third of the roads in the rural municipality now consist of exploration roads.

Smith feared what will happen to an area he described as some of the best ranch land in North America, something he said the first cowboys recognized during the cattle drives from Texas that established ranching in Alberta in the 19th century.

“The beautiful thing about agriculture is that it’s totally regenerative and sustainable,” said Smith about his ranch. “This place has given the family a living for like 60 years, roughly, and it’ll do it another 60 and another 60 after that if we don’t mess up our environment.”

Contact doug.ferguson@producer.com

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