Chris Pecora

Mining Coal and Gravel

Who needs water anyway?

By Kevin Van Tighem

Unless the Kenney UCP find a way to dodge and defer, we can expect to learn whether our government considers coal more important to Alberta’s future than water. It’s really as simple as that, because the metallurgical coal that certain cabinet ministers seem so desperate to sell to foreign investors is buried under the province’s most critical source water region: the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies.

This summer, halfway through a blistering dry spell reeking of forest fire smoke, I hiked up a coal exploration road with fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch. This was on Cabin Ridge, a lovely piece of elk country that divides the headwaters of the Oldman and Livingstone rivers.

The coal companies hope to strip that mountain down for the coal hidden inside it. Perhaps that’s why their network of coal exploration roads felt so aggressive. Big, graded gravel roads zigzag up the mountain now, gouged into its slopes as much as two or more metres deep. The companies hadn’t started mining the mountain yet—if there is any sanity at all in the land of Jasons they never will—but we could see where they had already begun to undermine our water future.

Where the road cut into the once-pristine slopes, it had brought shallow groundwater to the surface, just as a knife slash brings blood from just beneath the skin. That water was now fouled with algae, warmed by the sun and evaporating into the drought winds sweeping down the valley. For millennia, water from melting snow and spring rains had soaked into that mountainside’s soils and seeped slowly downslope to be released, weeks later, as clean, cold spring water into the river below. There it sustained native trout populations and lush riparian wildlife habitats on its way downstream to our kitchen sinks, gardens, industries and farm fields. But the water we saw that day was all destined to evaporate. It would never reach the river, never sustain our province’s communities and economy.

Coal strip mines waste even more water when the companies steal water from tiny headwater streams and groundwater aquifers to control dust and wash coal—contaminating the runoff with toxic selenium and evaporating the rest. Less water reaches the rivers, and it’s full of toxins when it does.

This is no longer news to most Albertans, because we’ve been trying to argue sense back into our rogue government for months now. When their coal policy panel reports to Energy Minister Sonya Savage late this fall, we’ll see how well they listened.

But what might be news to many of us is that coal is not the only strip-mining threat facing our rivers and putting our water future at risk. Another mineral resource is mined all across the province, one to which we have become so accustomed that most of us can’t see the harm it causes. I’m talking about aggregate: gravel and sand.

Alberta’s economy doesn’t need coal exports, but we do need aggregate. It goes into road-building, concrete manufacture, structure foundations and various other uses.

We simply can’t source gravel from our stream floodplains any more than we should continue the insanity of stripping coal out of our Eastern Slopes.

Unfortunately, when companies mine aggregate in the wrong places, they often interfere with shallow groundwater aquifers or—in the worst cases—carve holes in river floodplains that capture and divert water meant for other uses.

Vivian Pharis, a well-respected Alberta environmentalist, was one of many who tried to prevent a now-approved gravel pit on top of the aquifer that feeds water into the beautiful tufa springs of Bighill Springs Provincial Park, north of Cochrane. She points out that two square miles of additional land adjacent to the park, all on top of the same aquifer, have been bought up by gravel operators for future strip mining. It’s a crazy risk.

One of those operators, Burnco, recently sought approval for massive new pits stretching 6.5 km along the Bow River west of Cochrane: 389 hectares of hole-in-the-ground. Fortunately, after learning of the threat to water safety that mining on this scale would create for the Stoney-Nakoda and the Town of Cochrane, Rocky View County approved only 65 hectares. But that will still add to the many hundreds of hectares already mined along the Bow River—many depleting or damaging groundwater.

When those pits fill with water, they become evaporating ponds. Water that evaporates is gone. That which remains becomes heated and, too often, contaminated. Cut by cut, approval by approval, gravel strip mines are evaporating our province’s water supply even as a changing climate makes each drop more precious than ever before.

We simply can’t afford to source gravel from our stream floodplains and source-water areas any more than we should continue the insanity of stripping coal out of our Eastern Slopes. Water is simply worth more than gravel or coal.

Kevin Van Tighem’s Wild Roses Are Worth It: Reimagining the Alberta Advantage, was released in spring 2021 by RMB.


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