SUNDRE — Council took no action following a presentation by two delegates who outlined concerns about the provincial government’s plans to pave the way for an expansion of the coal mining industry in the Rocky Mountains.
Retired fisheries biologist Jim Stelfox, from the West Country Sustainability Group, was joined on June 14 by Clearwater County resident Brenda MacKenzie, representing the Alberta Freshwater Alliance Society, during the regularly scheduled council meeting conducted by teleconference after requesting an audience.
Pertaining specifically to open-pit coal mines in the Eastern Slopes and how siltation and selenium can have devastating downstream effects, the 20-plus minute presentation, followed by another roughly 20 minute discussion with council, outlined in detail the potential for environmentally detrimental, unintended consequences, which future generations will inherit. The delegates argued the minor economic benefits to the province are substantially outweighed by the risks.
Poor industry track record
Stelfox spoke about the less-than-stellar track record of the provincial regulator and industry in ensuring the environment is protected.
He illustrated how even a light rainfall can stir up enough sediment plumes to create turbid water conditions that affect the population of salmonids — such as trout varieties and whitefish — by suffocating their eggs and reducing their food supply.
“Imagine what happens when the berm at a coal mine settling or tailings pond fails,” said Stelfox, who worked for Alberta’s Fish and Wildlife Division for 35 years.
Some people might wonder what the big deal is considering the annual high flow period in the spring, but he said that as water levels go down during the summer, the silt settles in areas and stays there until the next high flow period the following year.
He recounted the story of Richard Quinlan, a former habitat protection biologist for the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division in Edson from 1982 to 1989, who undertook approximately 20 investigations, of which not a single one resulted in any coal mining companies being fined.
More recently, Stelfox said the primary cause of a catastrophic berm failure at the Coal Valley Resources Inc. Obed mine in 2013 occurred because the water level in the containment pond was allowed to exceed the permitted level by more than five metres. This resulted in the berm, which was 20 metres high, becoming overtopped and washing out, leading to a spill of 670,000,000 litres of fluid mine waste along with another 90,000 tonnes of sediment being dumped into waterways that ultimately reached the Athabasca River.
“The force of the water and fluids being released from that containment pond was so great that it knocked over power poles and uprooted trees that were downstream,” he said.
Another major concern about expanding open-pit coal mining in the Eastern Slopes — the home of pristine headwaters that flow to sustain municipalities and agricultural operations downstream all the way into Saskatchewan — is selenium, a naturally occurring element that is vital in small amounts, but toxic in excess.
Water quality guidelines for selenium are one part per billion (ppb) federally and two ppb in Alberta, he said.
In B.C. where selenium levels downstream from a Teck-operated mine were recorded at more than 100 ppb in the Fording River, the population of adult cutthroat trout plummetted by 93 per cent from 2017 to 2019, he said.
In Alberta, selenium levels exceeding 40 ppb have been detected downstream from open-pit mines south of Hinton, where deformities and reduced survival of rainbow trout have been documented, he added.
“So it’s not just hypothetical,” he said.
“The provincial government knew that selenium levels exceeded water quality guidelines for at least 15 years, but did not report anything after 2006,” he said.
“Environment Canada’s database shows no fines for selenium contamination at existing Alberta mines have ever been issued.”
However, he said a $60-million fine was levied against Teck Coal Limited this year for releasing selenium and calcite from metallurgical coal mines the company operates in B.C.’s Elk Valley.
Monitoring stations mothballed
Back in Alberta, the province’s 2019 five-year monitoring plan shows stations on two rivers and a creek polluted with selenium from coal mines were mothballed despite more than 20 years of findings that provincial guidelines suggest should have required closer attention, he said.
“It sort of brings to mind (the saying), 'If you don’t want to find trouble, don’t go looking for trouble,'” he said, adding that closing those stations “certainly fits that paradigm.”
Alberta’s minister of Environment and Parks, Jason Nixon, who is also the Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre riding’s MLA, has previously released statements assuring the public that the province has world class environmental regulations.
“However, this is of little benefit if the regulations are not enforced,” he said.
“And even when they are enforced, the fines are usually so small that the companies decide it was better to just pay the fine, than to do what they needed to to protect the environment.”
Decades after the coal mines are closed, long after the companies have extracted the resource and left the province with their profits, who will be left paying to operate water treatment plants, he queried.
Providing additional context by presenting different approaches taken by other jurisdictions to protect their environment, he said several states in the U.S. such as Washington and Alaska require full bonding upfront before any mining operation can get started, he said.
“In Alberta, only a small amount — I believe about 10 per cent of the estimated cost of reclaiming the mines — is required upfront,” he said.
And considering that about 1,000 litres are required to wash just one ton of coal, Stelfox said the result is a massive quantity of waste fluid associated with open-pit mining.
“These tailings ponds have a very high frequency of failure, and when they do, that water goes downhill, into the streams, the rivers, and the consequences are devastating for the aquatic environment,” he said.
“Simply put, the risks greatly outweigh the gains.”
Coun. Cheri Funke directed a question to administrative staff, asking whether the municipality monitors for selenium at its water treatment plant.
“We do, actually. We test for heavy metals twice a year,” said Linda Nelson, chief administrative officer, adding the maximum allowable level for selenium is 0.05 parts per million (ppm) and that the most recent test detected levels at 0.0005 ppm.
“So low right now that we almost can’t detect accurately,” she said, adding the municipality would have to provide treatment if those limits were ever nearly reached or exceeded.
Fox guarding the hen house
Acknowledging the Treaty 6 and 7 Territory and traditional meeting ground and home of many Indigenous peoples upon which the conversation was held, MacKenzie’s portion of the presentation covered historical background on the former Peter Lougheed Conservative government’s 1976 Coal Policy.
The policy, which at the time took several years to develop in collaboration with stakeholders, was quietly and without meaningful public consultation rescinded last year by the UCP before public outcry prompted the government to partially reverse course by reinstating it until a modernized version can be adopted.
However, two exploration projects approved on previously protected land after the policy was rescinded were not rolled back.
And eight months before the UCP initially announced the policy was rescinded last spring on the Friday of the May long weekend, members of the government met with representatives from Australian coal mining company Valory Resources to discuss a lease application west of Caroline, said MacKenzie, pointing to council a copy of official provincial correspondence with the company that was included in the delegates’ slideshow presentation.
The majority of industry applications, she later added, are generally approved within 30 days or less.
“The AER (Alberta Energy Regulator) instructs and encourages industry to self-regulate their own activities because, as we’ve been told directly from the AER, there are not enough boots on the ground,” she said.
“The regulator’s mandate was written by industry, for industry. The Alberta Energy Regulator is directly funded by industry 100 per cent — fox guarding the hen house.”
The mandate of a regulator that is supposed to be considered world class should not revolve around the obsession to provide quick approvals, she said.
Coun. Todd Dalke said technologies and methods have evolved over the decades, and asked whether the delegates had, through their research, identified any coal operations that are sustainable and environmentally conscious.
“If not, do we have an alternative?” asked Dalke, who also pointed out consumer demand is only predicted to continue growing.
“Hydrogen has been used to produce steel, so you don’t have to use coking coal,” said Stelfox, adding there are two methods involved.
“One is to take the hydrogen from natural gas — that’s referred to as blue hydrogen — and the more benign is green hydrogen, which is where you use electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen,” he said.
“If you got surplus power being produced by solar or wind, that can then be used to produce the hydrogen.”
Alternatives are available and being tested in Sweden, he added.
“I expect that you’re going to see in the next 10 to 15 years, a lot of the steel being produced around the world, is going to be with means other than using coking coal. So, it would be a shame for us to decimate the mountains for the sake of a few years of profits when alternatives exist.”
Future generations will pay
MacKenzie said Sundre and area residents are lucky to live in a place with such an amazing environment for a backyard, but cautioned about the potential impact coal mining in the Eastern Slopes could have, including prompting people who had their sights set on settling here to start looking somewhere else.
Of all the water on the planet, only three per cent is freshwater. And of that three per cent, she said only one per cent is readily accessible.
“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children,” she later added, quoting an Indigenous proverb.
Coun. Paul Isaac said he had received anywhere from 40 to 50 phone calls and emails from residents as well as councillors from various other municipalities throughout the province, prompting him to further investigate the issue.
The councillor wondered, in light of everything that was talked about, how much profits the companies are extracting compared to how much revenue is generated for the government, and why the UCP initially rushed forward so fast without doing any research or widespread public consultations.
“It makes me wonder what’s all going on behind the scenes that none of us really know, when many, many years ago, (former Alberta Premier) Don Getty, as an elected official, stated in Parliament, ‘Yes, we might lose business to other provinces. But watershed preservation is top government priority’,” said Isaac.
“Why is our government not listening to some of the research that has been done” as well as people, organizations and municipalities who have expressed concerns, he said.
“We’ve had the same questions, too. And unfortunately we don’t have answers,” replied Stelfox, adding that requests for information from stakeholders including ranchers had yet to be responded to.
“It suggests there is something that has occurred that they (the provincial government) don’t want the public to become aware of, because if they did, it would be very damaging,” he said, alluding to the correspondence the provincial government had sent out attempting to entice coal companies with low royalties.
Once the resources and profits are extracted, the subsidiaries declare bankruptcy while the parent company gets off the hook, “and we can add to the orphan well program — this a legacy to pass onto our future generations,” said Stelfox.
The decision before Albertans, he said said, is similar to the one faced by Charles Dickens’ fictional character Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, who wakes up from his greed and guilt induced nightmare and realizes the future does not have to be that way, provided he is willing to change.
“The question for Albertans is, do we have the will to change — do we want to leave the land and water better than we found it?”
MacKenzie asked council to consider taking action by way of drafting and sending a letter to the government outlining the municipality’s position on the issue, along with a request to be consulted as major stakeholders on any future decisions regarding coal development plans.
No action taken
Coun. Charlene Preston called the issue a provincial matter, and wondered whether any of the coal companies or government representatives had been invited to present to council.
Nelson said that was not the case, but added an invitation could yet be extended.
Stelfox asked if he could interject, which mayor Terry Leslie allowed, and the biologist encouraged council to ask whether the provincial government would be willing to make the companies pay full bonding upfront.
If the answer from either party is no, he said, “you’d pretty much got your answers who’s going to be paying the piper to reclaim these areas after the coal mining has been done.”
Council unanimously carried a motion to accept the presentation for information and to direct administration to invite representatives from the government and coal companies involved to address council.
Numerous municipalities throughout the province, including the Town of Olds, have submitted correspondence to the provincial government expressing concerns not only about water scarcity, but also the potential for contamination as well as the ripple effect impact on other sectors including agriculture and tourism, and have requested assurances these concerns will be heard and addressed by provincial officials.