Coal mining can be taken to extremes

Doug Ferguson, one of our Alberta reporters, has been covering the twists and turns in that province’s coal policy controversy.

The provincial government brought in a policy in the mid-1970s that significantly restricted how and where coal could be mined in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

The current government rescinded that policy last year, apparently with the goal of allowing open-pit coal mining in the region, which just happens to be home to the headwaters of most of the river systems that make their way through southern Alberta and into Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

That change was followed by a change in water allocation, apparently to provide the proposed coal mines with a water supply.

Ranchers, First Nations and country music stars rang the alarm, worried about everything from selenium contamination to water shortages.

Premier Jason Kenney’s government looked like it was digging in for a fight, until it abruptly changed its mind. There is plenty of suspicion that the government isn’t done yet, but for now, it looks like the old coal policy is back.

Faithful readers of this column will know that I grew up in Estevan, Sask., where coal has been king for a long time.

In that part of the world, they strip away the soil with gigantic shovels, remove the coal, and put back the soil. When they’re done, you’d never know they’d been there.

That wasn’t always the case. The countryside to the southeast of my hometown is dotted with what we call spill piles, where decades ago they dug away the soil, dumped it in a heap beside the hole, removed the coal and moved on. The holes filled with water and the piles eventually covered over with vegetation.

The spill piles had a certain charm, I suppose, and were good for fishing, partying and skinny-dipping.

All this is to say that I’m not easily shocked by what coal miners do.

However, what threw me for a loop about the new mining proposed for Alberta was that companies planned to blow the tops off mountains in order to get at the coal inside.

I’ve read about this before, mainly in the Appalachians of the eastern United States, and it sounded horrible.

Now, I’m no mining expert, and maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds, but from where I’m sitting, blowing up a mountain to mine coal is a pretty drastic step.

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