It looks like spectacular wild country, but some see it more as a big money sandwich.
The top layer of that sandwich is comprised of alpine grasses, forget-me-nots and stonecrop, glacier lilies and ancient, brave pines whose branches have been gnarled and weathered by centuries of wind. In summer, solitaires and blue grouse huddle against the ground to hatch their eggs while grizzlies dig out marmots from under lichen-encrusted boulders. Winter’s howling winds scour snow into the trees below while bighorn sheep and elk eke out a survival ration of dry grass.
At the bottom layer, water that originated as snowmelt and rain, having seeped and dripped through shadowed layers of rock, emerges cold and clean in springs that feed small creeks whose floodplains are mosaics of spruce and meadow, birdsong and water chatter. Native westslope cutthroat trout rise for mayflies, and in the deeper shadows immense bull trout fin quietly above the clean gravels to which they return each summer to deposit their eggs.
And the middle of the sandwich? Unprocessed wealth: black bituminous coal.
Perhaps it’s not so much a sandwich as a sort of geological lasagna, with layers of coal intermixed with shale and sandstone, and everything tending to run together once you slice into it. Whatever foodie metaphor you choose, it’s a big chunk of Alberta. High-grade coal deposits—ideal for feeding the coking ovens that produce the world’s steel and other metals—crop out intermittently from south of the Crowsnest Pass to north of Grande Cache, a swath of land more than 850 km long and 5–20 km wide.
Setting aside the ethics of profiting from climate change, will coal mining companies destroy our lovely bighorn country and sweet clear streams?
Hunters, anglers, hikers and naturalists think of it not as coal country, but as God’s country. The bighorns, trout and other living things think of it as home. Multinational mining companies have been thinking about it a lot lately. That’s why its future is an open question.
Up to 600,000 ha of our headwaters—an area almost the size of Edmonton—are under lease today for possible future mountaintop strip-mining. Setting aside the ethics of profiting from climate change, whether all those leases become actual mines will depend on whether mining companies like Teck Resources, Riversdale and Montem can rip the middle out of the sandwich without also destroying that green and lovely bighorn country on top and those sweet clear streams below. They probably can’t.
Alberta’s coal originated between 140 and 65 million years ago in lush, well-vegetated swamps that probably looked a lot like Jurassic Park. The North American continent floats on an immense plate, and the Pacific Ocean lies atop another one. The slow-motion collision between those plates pushed up the Rocky Mountains and gradually depressed the continent’s interior. Layer after layer of dead vegetation became buried under new greenery. Sand and silt eroding from the young Rockies washed east onto the sinking swamps, burying the layers of peat. As the weight of new sediments grew heavier, the peat was compressed into coal beds layered with shale and sandstone.
The oldest coal deposits became part of the Front Ranges and foothills of the Rocky Mountains as those got pushed towards the sky 80 to 55 million years ago. The coal beds under today’s plains are younger and of a lower grade—good enough for electricity production, but too impure for firing blast furnaces used in steelmaking.
Alberta’s first commercial mine opened near Lethbridge in 1874. Coal heated frontier homes, powered locomotives and fuelled steam-powered farming and industrial equipment. Oil displaced coal for most of those purposes after the Second World War. Starting in 1962, however, coal became important again as utility companies such as Calgary Power began stripping thermal coal from accessible deposits on the plains to generate electricity. By the turn of the century, about half of Alberta’s electricity was coming from coal-fired electric plants.
But coal is a dirty fuel. It releases countless tonnes of carbon dioxide into our warming atmosphere and exposes downwind residents to particulate pollution. That’s why Alberta’s 2015 Climate Leadership Plan called for coal-generated electricity to be phased out by 2030. In the first three years of the plan, Alberta’s coal production decreased by more than one-third. As less-polluting energy sources take over, it might seem like the end of coal mining for Alberta.
But if that’s the case, why have coal companies been taking out big coal leases along the edge of the Rockies?
Metallurgical (coking) coal is used to fire blast furnaces in steel production. Thermal coal may be out of favour as a source of electricity, but the world’s steel demand isn’t going away. The bituminous coal in Alberta’s front ranges is ideal for coking. It’s a lucrative export to overseas steel mills—where it pours CO2 into the planet’s atmosphere just the same as if we’d burned it here.
In most places where metallurgical coal is mined, giant machines scrape off vegetation and overburden to get at the coal-bearing strata. The coal is stripped out and the remaining rock debris pushed into spoil heaps. The resulting pits and rubble piles can be massive. As the companies exhaust parts of the mine they are required to reclaim the site. That usually involves bulldozing the spoil heaps to slopes of less than 27 per cent and then spraying fertilizer and seed on top to get vegetation established. Even then, toxic chemicals can leach into nearby streams for decades.
The Crowsnest Pass communities and Canmore and Nordegg all began as coal towns and still live with the legacy of abandoned mines. Grande Cache’s boom–bust coal mines closed most recently in 2015. Bituminous coal is still mined at Coal Valley and the Cheviot mine (Cardinal River Coals) which opened south of Hinton when the nearby Luscar and Gregg River mines closed down. Alberta’s metallurgical coal production is barely half the level it was five years ago but Alberta Energy expects production to increase again in 2019 now that the Grande Cache mine has reopened, and with the start of production at the Vista mine just east of Hinton.
In spite of the recent downward trend, the June 2018 Canadian Mining Journal was almost breathless in its excitement over the prospects for new coking coal development in Alberta: “Canada is the world’s third-largest exporter of metallurgical coal, with 85 per cent of our production in Alberta and British Columbia… Preliminary numbers from Natural Resources Canada show that the total value of Canada’s coal production increased 55.6 per cent to reach $6.3-billion in 2017 as a result of higher prices for the second year in a row.…
“While BC is the powerhouse producer of metallurgical coal in Canada… Alberta’s production will increase in the coming years. It is no secret that Alberta’s foothills and Eastern Slopes hold major deposits of high-quality coking coal, and several projects are moving towards production.”
The company everyone is watching is Benga Mining (a wholly owned subsidiary of Australia-based Riversdale Resources). Should the company’s Grassy Mountain project survive a joint federal–provincial environmental review currently underway, the company plans to open a 2,800-hectare mountaintop removal mine north of Blairmore by 2021.
Other companies are waiting to see how Riversdale does with the Grassy Mountain approval before advancing mine development plans of their own. Montem Resources hopes to reopen another abandoned mine in the area and has leased an incredible 220 km² stretching well north into undeveloped terrain. Max Wang, CEO of Montem’s predecessor company, Atrum, was quoted in a recent Calgary Herald story: “I would say the industry is looking to the success of Riversdale’s project, because it’s the first in the Crowsnest Pass area. There are quite a number of global investors, mostly from Australia, interested in that region.”
The proposed new Grassy Mountain coal mine falls almost entirely in the Municipal District of Ranchland, but Cam Gardner only learned about the mining plans through a story in a Crowsnest Pass newspaper. At that point, Riversdale Resources had already spent several months grooming the neighbouring MD of Crowsnest Pass, making donations to popular local causes and getting company staff appointed to volunteer boards.
Gardner, who stepped down as reeve of the MD of Ranchland in early 2019 to run as the NDP candidate for Livingstone-Macleod, ranches in an isolated valley west of Chain Lakes Provincial Park, an hour’s drive north of the pass. It should be a paradise, but coal is already breathing down his family’s neck. Gardner says that they regularly hear explosions from the Fording River mines owned by Teck Resources, 40 kilometres to the west in BC. Montem’s undeveloped leases adjacent to Alberta’s Forestry Trunk Road (Highway 940) are even closer.
At night, the glow from the BC mines is brighter than the glow from Calgary. “Teck took away our Northern Lights,” he says.
“Crowsnest Pass has almost made the transition out of a boom and bust resource economy,” Gardner continues, shaking his head over the degree to which some locals have become mine boosters. “They’ve gone through all the pain of watching the big resource companies shut down to the point where they almost are where Banff and Waterton are, and now they just want to go back to boom and bust.”
While Crowsnest Pass flirts with a return to its polluted past, other former coal mining communities have found prosperity by embracing the more pristine attractions of nature. Like the Crowsnest Pass, Canmore also began as a coal-mining town. Its last mine closed in 1979. By the early 1980s it was a struggling backwater. After the 1988 Winter Olympics brought the world to the Alberta Rockies, however, the town blossomed as a tourism and second-home mecca at the doorstep of Banff National Park. Gardner and others see its thriving economy as an example for the Crowsnest Pass if it were to embrace its proximity to the new Castle Provincial Park and other nearby protected areas rather than once again succumb to the seduction of King Coal.
The coal always runs out, after all. Investors pocket their profits and move on. Towns are left in crisis, the land with open wounds. And coal mining doesn’t even put a lot of money into the province’s treasury to help mitigate those consequences. Annual royalties from all of Alberta’s metallurgical coal mines amounted to barely $5-million in 2018.
If the world’s continuing hunger for metallurgical coal leads to a coal mining renaissance along the front of the Rockies, what will that mean for the rest of the ecological sandwich wrapped around those coal seams?
Where many biologists turn up their noses at reclaimed coal mines, Beth MacCallum adopts a more pragmatic—even optimistic—view about the implications of ripping the top off the coal sandwich. She’s worked on reconciling mining with wildlife since she first arrived in Hinton in 1985. When MacCallum started working on the area’s coal mines, government was promoting better reclamation standards for strip mines but had little experience achieving them. She’s seen enough evolution in practice to now believe that reclamation can restore ecosystem values even if it can’t restore aesthetics. Since Teck Resources closed the Gregg River and Luscar mines in 2000 and 2003 respectively she’s provided wildlife habitat advice to help the company gain certification of their cleanup efforts.
Some of the world’s largest bighorn sheep occupy those mines. Early reclamation efforts focused on simply getting green vegetation growing, so the mine managers planted tame pasture mixes that included a lot of alfalfa and clover. The reclaimed sites became giant salad bars, custom-made for bighorns. The world-record hunter-killed bighorn ram, until recently, was shot just outside the mine boundary. Each fall, hopeful hunters wait for the next massive ram to step across the line and into the record books.
Planting tame hay doesn’t replace the ecological diversity lost when land is stripped for mining. But MacCallum says that good mine planning and continuing improvements in reclamation techniques can get partway there. The key, she says, is to stockpile the bulldozed soil for as short a time as possible before spreading it on reclaimed ground. If rain doesn’t wash away the soil, the still-viable seeds and root fragments of native grasses, wildflowers and shrubs can resprout. Mines that continually reclaim behind them as they open new seams can move freshly disturbed ground onto newly reclaimed slopes. They still end up with too many weeds and non-native grasses but there is far more natural diversity than the old-style reclamation that makes trophy hunters happy.
Mine reclamation can restore some ecosystem values. But sulphates, nitrates and heavy metals seep into groundwater and streams for decades.
The Luscar and Gregg River mines may soon be certified as fully reclaimed, at which point Teck Resources will hand the land back to the Alberta government. MacCallum says that wolves are already denning on the mine property and it has one of the highest densities of grizzly bears north of the North Saskatchewan River. Marmots are abundant, as are their predators. In fact, she says, most of the original native fauna now thrive on the reclaimed lands. Some wildlife guides even bring clients to the mines instead of nearby Jasper National Park. There’s better wildlife viewing there. That, and the potential for displacement of habituated wildlife by hunters and photographers, is why MacCallum hopes the reclaimed mines will continue being managed as wildlife sanctuaries.
Other problems, however, are more intractable. Perhaps the most troubling is the release of toxic chemicals from the billions of tonnes of shattered rock that accumulate during the life of a mine. Snowmelt and rainwaters leach sulphates, nitrates and heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium and selenium into groundwater and streams for decades.
Teck Resources operates five coal strip mines in the Elk River valley, just across the Continental Divide from the Alberta deposits currently being eyed by Riversdale and Montem. Selenium pollution from those mines has caused fish kills, deformities and spawning failures in the Elk and Fording Rivers. A 2013 University of Montana study documented selenium concentrations seven to 10 times higher than natural levels. That triggered a review by the International Joint Commission, which mediates transboundary water issues between the US and Canada. Federal fisheries officials in Canada became concerned when native cutthroat trout in the Fording River started showing deformities.
Faced with the risk of limitations on their future expansion plans, in 2014 Teck Resources committed more than $600-million to efforts to reduce selenium pollution. One of its first efforts was to build a cutting-edge bio-remediation facility at Fording River. Soon after the plant went into operation, however, large numbers of dead trout appeared in the river. It was shut down and subsequent analysis showed that in removing one selenium compound from the water, the facility was actually releasing a more dangerous version of the toxin. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans fined the company $1,425,000. The plant remains closed. The problem seems insoluble—but Teck still hopes to expand.
“There is a question as to whether the technology even exists to remove selenium from large volumes of flowing water, and there is no viable solution to remove selenium from groundwater,” US commissioners to the IJC wrote in a 2018 report.
Coal mining doesn’t put a lot of money into Alberta’s treasury. Royalties amounted to barely $5-million in 2018.
And Teck’s selenium problems aren’t just confined to BC. Monitoring downstream from the Hinton-area mines in creeks containing the rare and threatened Athabasca rainbow trout has shown levels of selenium contamination two to four times higher than federal guidelines for the protection of aquatic life. Although Teck reports no evidence of harm to the trout, fisheries biologist Carl Hunt points out that evidence of mortality is always hard to find in the wild because selenium is most toxic to eggs and young fish. Compounding the problem: selenium is more toxic to native rainbow trout than to the introduced eastern brook trout—a species that tends to out-compete our native trout at the best of times.
Farther south, in the Oldman River headwaters, Alberta will soon have to decide whether to allow Australian-owned mining companies Riversdale and Montem to open new mines on leases that cover an area almost as large as the Elk Valley mines. Such approvals would almost certainly inflict water pollution on downstream ecosystems and water users: our streams are small, water is scarce, and the wind blows much more strongly than on the BC side of the mountains. Pollution will likely be more concentrated in streams and more widely dispersed on land.
Rancher Jillian Lawson pointed out the intractability of the problem during a joint federal–provincial panel review of the Grassy Mountain project. Noting that the proposed mine would rely merely on settling ponds and rock filtration to treat water before releasing it into streams containing westslope cutthroat trout—a nationally designated species at risk—she added: “The dust and fly ash from the proposed mine(s) would be blown far and wide, especially in the prevailing—and increasingly extreme—southwest winds to contaminate other sources of water, including the snow pack on the mountains… where it could make its way to ground water which recharges domestic wells and essential natural springs…”
Fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch says native cutthroat trout are already extirpated from 80 per cent of their historic range in Alberta. Some of their last productive habitat is the streams draining the coal deposits Riversdale and Montem hope to develop. There’s little likelihood that those streams will survive mountaintop-removal mining. Even if some do, chances are that non-native fishes more resistant to pollution will replace the unique native cutthroats and bull trout.
In a 2005 Alberta Views essay about the Cheviot mine, geologist Ben Gadd wrote: “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.”
If the next metallurgical coal boom leads to massive new mines in the headwaters of Alberta’s Oldman River the beauty of that country will be impaired forever. Bighorn sheep and the other wildlife with which they share the high, windy slopes will likely persist, albeit in strangely artificial, man-made habitats. Streams will still flow east to the thirsty plains, but devoid of native trout and loaded up with toxic chemicals.
And somewhere else in the world, that Alberta coal will be combusted, releasing hundreds of millions more tonnes of carbon dioxide into the planet’s warming atmosphere.
But the investors feasting on Alberta’s coal sandwich will have made some money.
Based in Canmore, Kevin Van Tighem is a writer, AV columnist and former Parks Canada superintendent.