As coal prices skyrocketed, the fight to save Mountain Park from the short-sighted mining industry and government took on David and Goliath proportions
It was August of 1969. Bumping Northward from Nordegg along the old forestry trunk road, I came over the top of the Cardinal Divide for the first time and saw it: Mountain Park. Below lay an enormous meadow, invitingly green against the forest fringing it. To my left were the cliffs of the Rocky Mountain front ranges—to my right the long, gentle ridge of the divide, its higher reaches clad in flowery alpine tundra.
Except for a small graveyard on a knoll, the community was gone. Large piles of blackened rock told that the departed residents had made their living mining for coal. And therein lay the curse of this exquisite place.
From the time the first mines opened in 1912 until the advent of the diesel locomotive killed the coal market in 1950, the landscape had taken a beating. It wasn’t a terrible beating; the mining had been mainly underground, leaving most of the area untouched.
In the mid-1980s I was back in the upper McLeod Valley, leading natural-history tours. My groups of wildland enthusiasts would dangle their feet off the crest of the Cardinal Divide and complain about the noisy jeeps, motorcycles and quads, not about the mine tailings, which were now minor elements.
Then came Cheviot.
There are two kinds of coal mined in western Canada: cheap, low-grade coal for burning in power plants and expensive, high-grade coal for converting to coke, the purified coal used in blast furnaces. Since the 14th century, blast furnaces have been used for smelting iron. Layers of iron ore and coke are loaded into the furnace and then lit. When the coal is burning well, the air supply is partly cut off. A fire starved for oxygen produces carbon monoxide instead of carbon dioxide, and what carbon monoxide wants in the worst way is more oxygen. In a blast furnace, it gets it from the iron-oxide ore, which converts the ore to metallic iron in the process. Steelmakers are picky about the kind of coal they buy. Much of the stuff mined in the Canadian Rockies is terrific.
In the late 1960s, when Japan had once again become an industrial power and began importing a lot of its iron-smelting fuel from western Canada, coal companies went back onto their underground-mine leases and began digging, mainly in the Crowsnest Pass area and south of Hinton. Cardinal River Coals (CRC), a joint venture between Luscar Ltd. and CONSOL, began mining in 1969 at the old Luscar mine site, just north of the hamlet of Cadomin.
This was open-pit mining. The miners excavated huge holes over a hundred metres deep along a 10-metre-thick coal seam that plunged steeply into the earth. They dumped enormous quantities of broken rock onto wildland, burying valleys and producing strange-looking artificial hills devoid of trees.
CRC and other mining companies in the area cut down the forest, bulldozed wildlife and wildflowers and devastated the rich upland ecosystem on the eastern doorstep of Jasper National Park. And there was no public consultation.
The coal companies saw it differently. They were creating jobs, complying with government reclamation regulations and creating habitat for bighorn sheep. Never mind that the jobs depended on the ups and downs of the coal market, that it was impossible to “reclaim” an open-pit coal mine to its original state, or that the sheep were doing fine before the mines drew them to eat the non-native clover planted there.
Despite what mining companies say, there is no right way to mine for coal. It is inherently nasty stuff. Coal is a significant cause of global warming, not only from the carbon dioxide released when it’s burned, but also from the methane released when it’s mined. Wherever coal is mined the local economy goes boom-and-bust and the landscape gets wrecked. The world should be using as little coal as possible, and we can. There are new iron-smelting methods (pulverized coal injection or PCI and Hlsmelt) that use much less coal.
Mining continued throughout the seventies near Cadomin, where railway transport for the coal was available. But the McLeod headwaters remained untouched. Mountain Park coal would have been more expensive to mine because the old rail line had been abandoned and allowed to decay.
In the eighties the world price of coking coal dipped. By the mid-nineties it had slipped so far that mines in the Canadian Rockies threatened to close. Bad news for the town of Hinton, where many miners lived, but good news to those of us who had seen the open-pit wasteland widening.
In 1984 CRC disclosed to the Alberta government that they were thinking of mining on the old Mountain Park lease. The government replied that they had no objection in principle. Still, given the downward trend of the coal market I doubted anything would come of it.
CRC’s 1996 “Cheviot Mine” proposal took the conservation community by surprise. CRC claimed they needed more coal to fill their orders than the existing pits could supply. But several years’ supply was available on Cadomin Mountain, or by digging deeper at Luscar. The coal market was depressed and the company would have to sink about $200-million into a new processing plant and other facilities to start mining at Mountain Park. Mining there also meant Canadian National Railways would have to rebuild the branch line. However, in the face of reduced profits, CRC was trying to keep its costs as low as possible. That meant shallower pits and more of them—a process more like strip mining than open-pit mining. The mines spread out faster and did more surface damage—and the government permitted it.
At the same time, CRC announced the “Luscar Coal Income Fund,” a complex financial scheme built on the promise of the new mine. I began to think Cheviot was aimed more at people’s pockets than at the coal in Mountain Park. It was high-risk paper, but promised accordingly rich returns. Perhaps the company would sell enough “trust units” to permit the various buyouts detailed in the prospectus, but then not actually do any mining.
The Cheviot project included rebuilding the railway, upgrading the road, putting in a 138-kilovolt power line, constructing a processing plant and explosives factory at Mountain Park, and digging a chain of pits over a period of 20 years. The chain would extend 22 kilometres, about the width of Edmonton. It would be smack in the middle of wildlife habitat zoned “Critical” by the province and essential to grizzly bears from Jasper National Park. The mine would release selenium into the ecosystem; use a great deal of water; destroy rare plants, trout-spawning streams and nesting habitat for harlequin ducks (a species attracting international concern) and many migratory-bird species; and would ruin the recreational potential of the area, which had been proposed for a provincial park.
A lot of those outcomes seemed to contradict provincial and federal environmental protection laws. All of them were beyond the pale for people who loved Mountain Park and the Cardinal Divide and couldn’t bear to see the place destroyed—especially for short-term gain. Even if the mine operated for the full 20 years, which we doubted, the profit wasn’t worth the sacrifice of an ecosystem dating back to the ice ages, or the loss of the long-term recreational income that could be generated by protecting it.
I teamed up with the Jasper Environmental Association, the Alberta Wilderness Association, the Pembina Institute and CPAWS to demand a public hearing, which the province had to provide under its 1976 Coal Policy. A three-person panel— two provincial representatives and one federal—was appointed to hold the hearings in Hinton, where residents had their own response to the mine: signs all over town proclaimed “We Support Cheviot.”
What a misguided position, I thought. The town was already feeding the forest into a huge, stinking pulp mill. This alone made Hinton unattractive to white-collar workers, distance workers, educational institutions, tourists and other recreationists, and the retired—all people who would be happy to live there and provide continuing prosperity, just as they had in so many mountain towns elsewhere in North America. But except for a few locals who helped our case, most who came to the hearings glared at us as outside agitators trying to take away their $50,000-a-year jobs driving haul trucks.
Early on during the hearings I took a chance and went over to speak with some miners. I had just informed the panel of the dubious economic viability of the project, and I wondered whether the miners saw it that way, too. Incredibly, several of them did. Their main worry was that if Cheviot failed to materialize and the existing coking-coal mines closed, they’d have to join a different union to work in Luscar’s power-plant coal mines.
One miner told me privately that he figured the whole thing made no sense, but he wasn’t going to go around promulgating that point of view. Hintonite Mike Bracko, who grew up in Mountain Park and ran the processing plant at CRC’s Luscar mine for many years before retiring, spoke out against Cheviot at the hearings. He and his wife, who now live in Edmonton, suffered socially for it. “When I was a kid I used to walk along the creeks there at Mountain Park,” said Bracko. “During the hearings I relived that. But nobody in Hinton seems to care anymore.” Jennifer Klimek, the environmental lawyer handling our coalition’s presentations, found CRC had repeatedly reported that its own mines had polluted local streams by severely exceeding the limits on mine-released selenium. “Yet the company said at the hearings that it didn’t have any selenium problems,” says Klimek. “We pointed out these kinds of discrepancies so often that company lawyers began to get nervous every time I reached for a new document.”
The panel deliberated until June 1997 and then dismissed our concerns. In their opinion, a 70-square-kilometre moonscape would entail some environmental damage, but most of that was rated “insignificant,” “reasonable” or “justified” because the mine was “in the public interest.”
As Klimek says, “in Alberta the test of public interest is so skewed toward economics that I wonder what we would have to prove to show that any industrial project, no matter how bad it is, shouldn’t go ahead.”
The panel recommended that provincial and federal authorities issue the necessary permits. The mine was to be trimmed down a little at its western edge. The company had to make a few promises about those grizzly bears and ducks. But once that was done, Cheviot would be allowed to proceed.
There were public anti-Cheviot events in Edmonton, and a group of protesters walked all the way to Jasper for a rally. Our coalition took the government to court over some particularly egregious failings in the panel decision. And we won. But all we got was another short hearing in 2000, leading to another Cheviot approval. At least the panel had recognized that Cheviot would be in contravention of the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994.
With nearly all the required permits in place but coal prices continuing to fall, and CNR refusing to rebuild the branch line to Mountain Park, CRC announced that Cheviot was on hold until the market picked up. At the same time, mine closures in the Hinton and Cadomin area were announced. This was exactly what I had been expecting to hear, along with Hintonites blaming the goddamn environmentalists who had delayed the approvals.
Cheviot was dead and mountain-front mining was dying. I felt sorry for the miners and for the town of Hinton generally, victims of unfulfilled promises. But Mountain Park was safe. Until unexpected circumstances brought the Cheviot monster back to life in a new, more damaging form.
In 2002, CRC applied to the Alberta government to build a long, private coal-hauling road between Mountain Park and its processing plant at Luscar. A press release from CRC said that this road might never be built, but it would be nice to have the approval in place just in case the haul road was needed.
They got their approval, including new leases on the public lands lying between Mountain Park and Luscar. They didn’t have to hold further hearings on the consequences of putting all that land in private hands, or the effects of blasting a 40-metre-wide road to Mountain Park and running 240-tonne-capacity haul trucks over it 24/7.
By February of 2003, CRC’s parent company, Luscar, had merged with its rival, Fording Coal (the main company operating in the Crowsnest), and become part of the Elk Valley Coal Partnership. Elk Valley was also controlled by the multinationals Consol, Sherritt International and Teck Cominco—and, strangely enough, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. Nearly all the coal mines in western Canada had been amalgamated into a monopoly.
That monopoly soon ran up against another one, the Canadian Pacific Railway, in a court fight over shipping rates and delivery delays due to snow slides and forest fires. The CPR was Elk Valley’s only mode of transport from its Crowsnest Pass mines. Elk Valley needed to reassure its customers that it could get sufficient coal to market via another railway. That railway was CNR, which served the mines around Hinton.
Then, along came a jolt of economic electricity sufficient to get Frankenmine up off the table and walking: the price of coking coal skyrocketed. An unexpected boom in Asian steelmaking, coupled with insufficient supply in both coking coal and the ships to move it, set off a surge of coal orders worldwide, driving prices up. In the latter half of 2003 the price climbed from US$40 per tonne to $70. It kept rising, reaching $80 in June 2004 and $122 by April 2005.
By March 2004, Elk Valley had marshalled the bulldozers and was hard at work on the haul road. A lot of rock beside the McLeod River was moved in a hell of a hurry. So were the regulators.
In September, the federal government came up with the remaining permit required to begin mining (never mind the Migratory Birds Convention Act now), and by mid-October, when I scraped up enough money to charter a helicopter to fly over the valley (the public road had been closed all summer), the seam was open. The first trainload of coal went to Vancouver shortly after.
We conservationists didn’t take this lying down. Such flagrant corporate/regulatory-agency duplicity was third-world stuff! The original coalition, joined by the Sierra Club of Canada, went after both levels of government to hold proper hearings on what was, in our view, a vastly different mine design. We were refused. Industry clearly had the ear of the regulators, while we didn’t. Never mind that we were the only ones standing up for the interests of all Albertans, whose public land was getting wrecked, plus the interests of the grizzly bears and other wildlife. The government was listening only to people who were making a buck off the place.
Our coalition took the government to court over egregious failings in the panel decision. And we won. But all we got was another short hearing, leading to another Cheviot approval.
Well, I had been making a buck off the place for many years too, in my guiding activities, and had been recognized as an independent member of the coalition throughout the earlier hearings. So I decided to get standing before the Alberta Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) to make a case that Alberta Environment had approved the haul road in error. Not accountable to Alberta Environment or any other government department, the EAB was formed in 1993 to give us Davids a chance against the many Goliaths in the province. As far as corporate Alberta was concerned, the EAB was okay: it gave the government credibility, and the board only had the power to send its findings to the Minister of Environment, who could accept or reject them.
There was a risk in going before the EAB: if my appeal was found to be without merit I could be hit with the legal costs incurred by Elk Valley and Alberta Environment. I proceeded with the appeal. Meanwhile the rest of the coalition backed Sierra Legal in two Federal Court cases, one demanding a full environmental review and another on behalf of the migratory birds.
The board gave me standing, Elk Valley protested, which resulted in a short preliminary hearing in Edmonton in April of 2004, which affirmed my standing, Elk Valley then moved against that affirmation, which resulted in the judge throwing their case out. All this only delayed the actual EAB hearing while Elk Valley continued to fill those big haul trucks.
It was late January 2005 before the appeal was heard, in Hinton, in the same hotel in which the 1997 and 2000 Cheviot hearings had been held. Our crew was small but determined: Klimek, wilderness advocate Dianne Pachal, Pembina Institute selenium-chaser Chris Severson-Baker, wildlife biologist Dr. Cleve Wershler, and a fan of the region named Tom Stang, who presented photos of what the upper McLeod Valley looked like before the haul road was built. A group of cottage owners in Cadomin also weighed in, reminding the panel that they’d been promised unfettered access to CRC’s reclaimed mining areas, now isolated on the far side of the haul road. All these folks did a lot of work for no pay, and we held our own against a battery of expensive lawyers and consultants brought in by Alberta Environment and Elk Valley Coal.
The EAB wouldn’t consider actually closing the mine. We were allowed only to argue that the haul road had been approved in error. The best we could hope for was a recommendation that the minister close the haul road and make Elk Valley get its coal down the valley another way.
We waited 11 weeks for the decision. On April 12, 2005, Alberta Environment Minister Guy Boutilier announced that Elk Valley would have to avoid putting salt on the haul road (salting attracts wildlife), train the haul-truck drivers to avoid collisions with grizzly bears and other charismatic creatures, and install side-lighting on the trucks. The company also had to ensure the haul road was not used by Hinton’s go-everywhere 4×4 crowd when the mine was not operating. The EAB report detailed a lot of other equally minor mitigations that wouldn’t cause the company any real trouble. None of this recognized the loss of the valley to eco-recreationists or Cadomin cottage owners.
At least we’d made them blink. They would have to report to the Cadomin cottage owners and me on the progress of these token mitigations. But beyond standing in front of the trucks on the haul road, an act sure to land me in jail, if not in the Jasper cemetery, there was nothing further I could do about Cheviot.
Now it’s up to Sierra Legal, who took the case to Federal Court in Edmonton on June 14. The judge could shut down the mine. Environmental justice has a way of occasionally winning out in this country’s legal system, if not in its regulatory bodies. It is through such victories, and they are few, that rapacious capitalists are sometimes taught that Canada is not as easy to plunder as they assumed. But the case could drag on for years, while Mountain Park steadily becomes paradise lost.
Ironically, the coal market itself may save at least some of the area. A highly respected coal-market analyst estimates the current coking-coal boom will last about five years, depending on the economy. Elk Valley Coal and their competitors in other countries know this, and they’re doing their best to sell as much coal to Asia as they can before the boom ends. The result will almost certainly be a glutted market and nose-diving prices. Then Cheviot and other Canadian Rockies mines will close, perhaps for good, as steelmakers retool with newer iron-smelting technology, leaving a lot of people out of work and “We Support Cheviot” signs mouldering in Hinton basements.
The lesson in all this is a scary one: Alberta’s mining industry is capable of overcoming any opposition and spoiling any place it wishes, including lands as beautiful and ecologically important as Mountain Park. Our province needs a government able to enact truly protective laws and willing to enforce them. It needs regulators with backbone.
For now, they’re only in my dreams.
Ben Gadd is a Jasper-based author and naturalist.