People’s Voice reported that since 1976 Alberta’s Coal Development Policy has guided land use over many aspects of coal development, including open pit coal mining and coal exploration in some of Alberta’s most environmentally sensitive areas. This policy was developed with extensive public consultation, to create a fair balance between environmental protection, economic development, and the social needs of all Albertans. But on June 5, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government rescinded the Coal Development Policy. Recent documents show that at least seven months before announcing the cancellation, the provincial Minister of Environment and the Minister of Economic Development, Tourism, and Trade held conversations with coal companies that supported development in these sensitive areas. The lack of public consultation in parks and lands use runs counter to the UCP election commitments to increase consultation in parks and land use decisions and to increase tourism in Alberta.
The area involved provides water for downstream communities, which also flows into Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It provides habitat for species at risk including bull and cutthroat trout, grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, and mountain goat. It is a high-value recreation area and supports local communities and economies, including ranching and agriculture. Kate Morrison from Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society gave a description of what this open-pit mining entails, in a webinar organized with the Council of Canadians. Trees will be clear cut and explosives and massive machinery will be used to remove earth so that coal seams can be accessed from the top down. Mining waste, or spoil, will be dumped into valleys. The resulting landscape changes, such as mountain top removal and mining and valley fills, increase the risk of flash flooding, Native species are slow to recolonize the reclaimed land and planted trees may perform poorly in the compromised soil.
One of the major impacts is decreased water quantity and quality. Southern Alberta is already a dry region that has drought years, and it is unclear how water will be allocated. A number of toxic chemicals are involved in the mining process, but perhaps most concerning is the release of selenium which can cause reproductive failure in fish and elk. These effects have already been observed in British Columbia, near Teck corporation’s Elk Valley coal mining operations. Municipal water supplies near the site have already been contaminated.
The UCP’s whole approach to this issue has sneaky and aggressive. For example, of the 164 provincial parks the government delisted from protective status during the summer, sixty are in areas slated for coal mining. In another example, the government announced $120 million to the David Thompson highway for a twinning project [constructing a parallel road], which Sakela and others believe will actually be a regional support road for mining exploitation.
Another issue is how the Kenney government is streamlining approvals. The Alberta Energy Regulator is completely funded and operated by industry and is able to receive and approve an application in one day. This makes it enormously difficult for opponents to file an objection, especially average people who may not know how to do so.