Open-pit coal mining needs more review in Alta.

Changes to Alberta open-pit coal mining policies, done without public consultation, could jeopardize agricultural operations downstream and destroy irreplaceable natural habitat.

At the least, public hearings should be held into these changes. At most, the current government should abandon its revocation of the previous policy, put in place by the Lougheed government, and forgo its short-sighted effort to temporarily boost the economy at the expense of long-term damage to agriculture and to water quality for much of the Alberta population.

The five potential coal mine approvals on Alberta’s eastern slopes are pitting one resource sector against others.

For the provincial government, the combination of tax revenues and jobs that could stem from open-pit coal mining are attractive, especially given the hard economic times that have damaged the economy.

Agriculture’s success in Alberta is in large part due to coal, oil and gas extraction that provided funds for farm programs, irrigation expansion and jobs for farmers and ranchers when grain and cattle cheques weren’t enough.

But the past year’s push to certify new mines on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains has run aground as information trickled down to the public about the too-quiet amendments made last May.

Lougheed’s rules placed a moratorium on new open pit mines and heavily restricted the location of any production where it could interfere with water quality or other industries such as agriculture or tourism.

First Nations, agricultural producers, municipalities and environmental groups have gone to court seeking consultation from the government about the change.

The Kenney administration says a political decision, not legislated regulation, has been changed so it is not open to public discussion and consultation. Many Albertans — and most of them voted for this government — think otherwise.

The Grassy Mountain project in particular, which appears to be furthest ahead in the process and which would see part of a mountain leveled, runs through the Oldman River headwaters. It is creating fears of water shortages for agriculture and reduced water quality for all.

Adding to those fears is the spectre that the foreign companies interested in this project and others may not be fully accountable for damage should things go awry.

For their part, the mining companies are concerned that investments already made in exploration and development will be trashed if the public is allowed to shift the government’s policy back to the Lougheed plan. Then Alberta could be seen as an unreliable place to do business.

Over the ridge in British Columbia, surface mining of coal has resulted in troublesome levels of selenium and releases of nitrate from blasting materials into the Lake Koocanusa watershed where mining company Teck Resources operates four facilities. Each has a new water treatment plant being installed or expanded, and B.C. and the state of Montana are reviewing selenium release rules with an eye to tightening them.

In its desperation to find new revenues, the Alberta government shouldn’t rush to allow new coal mining activity through quiet changes to decades-old policies that were designed to balance the needs of multiple resource sectors.

People need the opportunity to have their voices heard about serious public policy changes that will have permanent repercussions.

The future of agriculture, natural settings, wildlife and water users from the mountain peaks eastward to Manitoba are counting on it.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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