A conveyor belt transports coal at the Westmoreland Coal Co.’s Sheerness mine near Hanna, Alta., on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Coal mining impacts are already occurring in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains even as debate intensifies over the industry’s presence in one of the province’s most beloved landscapes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

A conveyor belt transports coal at the Westmoreland Coal Co.’s Sheerness mine near Hanna, Alta., on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Coal mining impacts are already occurring in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains even as debate intensifies over the industry’s presence in one of the province’s most beloved landscapes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

As Alberta debates coal mining, industry already affecting once-protected Rockies

UCP revoked a policy that had protected eastern slopes of the Rockies from open-pit coal mining since 1976

Coal mining is already having an impact in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains even as debate intensifies over the industry’s presence in one of the province’s most beloved landscapes.

“They’ve been very active up there,” said Kevin Van Tighem, who lives near one of the areas now heavily leased for coal exploration.

The United Conservative government’s decision to revoke a policy that had protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies from open-pit coal mining since 1976 has convulsed the province.

Petitions opposing the move have gathered more than 100,000 signatures. Popular Alberta entertainment figures have come out against it and area ranchers and First Nations are trying to force a judicial review of the decision.

Documents from the Alberta Energy Regulator show that permission has already been granted for hundreds of drill sites and kilometres of roads threading through critical wildlife habitat and land previously untouched by mining.

“The day after the coal policy was rescinded we started seeing applications for exploration,” said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

“Before we’ve done any real assessments of the impacts, we’re seeing these companies have some potential pretty big impacts on that land.”

Documents filed with the regulator give some sense of what’s already been permitted.

Cabin Ridge Coal, operating 50 kilometres north of Coleman, Alta., is putting in 197 drill sites on land once protected by the coal policy.

It plans 15 new access roads and 19 “reactivated” roads — abandoned for decades and now being refurbished. The exploration plans require nine new stream crossings.

Elan Coal, north of Blairmore, Alta., has been permitted for 456 drill sites that include 66 kilometres of new roads and 29 kilometres of reactivated roads.

Montem Resources, active south of Coleman, has the OK for 71 drill sites with an unspecified length of “new and existing access.”

Almost all of the drill sites are on grizzly bear range. Mountain goat and sheep habitat will be affected.

Company plans detail how environmental impacts are to be reduced by careful construction and timing work for when it will cause the least disruption. They suggest the amount of land directly disturbed will be small — less than 100 hectares for Cabin Ridge.

That’s not the whole story, said Van Tighem, a former chief superintendent of Banff National Park.

Wildlife steer clear of active roads and drill sites by up to 500 metres, he said. Roads cut into hillsides — no matter how well built — are “erosion traps” and roads that run uphill are “sluiceways” for run-off that would normally feed streams, he said.

Mitigation measures aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, he added.

“They’re not ever as good as (companies) promise and not as consistently applied as the government would lead us to believe.”

Morrison points out that at least twice since the coal policy was revoked, companies have asked for exemptions to rules that prevented them from operating during sensitive times for wildlife.

“Both exemptions were applied for, granted and work started within a day or two,” she said. “That doesn’t scream rigour to me as far as decreasing impact.”

Peter Brodsky, spokesman for Energy Minister Sonya Savage, said the government takes public concern seriously. This week, it paused all lease sales on formerly protected land and cancelled a small number of them, refunding $80,000.

“The department will be working with Alberta Environment to determine next steps to best address the concerns that have been raised,” he said in an email.

“We will not choose between protecting the land for future generations and providing economic opportunities. We need to — and will — do both, in a measured and environmentally responsible way.”

Area rancher Gordon Cartwright looks up into the hills on his neighbour’s land and recalls what a geologist told him last summer about what his neck of the foothills looks like.

“He said, with the intensity of the operations and the drilling, it looked more like mining preparation than exploration,” Cartwright said.

“That activity’s pretty damaging. A lot of these soils are highly susceptible to erosion and are hard to re-vegetate.

“You would have thought consultation would have happened before you start opening up the country and creating that kind of disturbance.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

coal mine

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

file photo
County Council discusses new tax incentives for non-residential properties

County of Wetaskiwin Council discussed new tax incentives for non-residential properties at… Continue reading

Screen grab/ Government of Alberta COVID-19 aggregate data map
City of Wetaskiwin down to just five active cases

Active COVID-19 cases in the City of Wetaskiwin continue to decline.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw says Albertans need to keep making safe choices to start bending the curve back down. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
One new COVID-19 death in Red Deer, 257 additional cases province-wide

Red Deer sits at 459 active cases of the virus

File photo
Norris Beach Road Tender Approved

County of Wetaskiwin Council awarded the tender for Range Road 11 to Crow Enterprises Ltd.

A health-care worker looks at a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Palais de Congress site as Quebec begins mass vaccinations based on age across the province, Monday, March 1, 2021 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Nearly 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses arriving in Canada this week: Anand

Anita Anand says she’s received assurances from the vaccine manufacturer

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Federal panel recommends 4-month gap between COVID vaccine doses due to limited supply

The recommendation applies to all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada

Maskwacis virtual job fair
MEC goes virtual with job fair and services during pandemic

By Chevi Rabbit For Ponoka News Maskwacis Employment Center’s (MEC’s) semi-annual job… Continue reading

hands
The call is out in Rimbey to sign on with a group that is all about building connections

‘Already, we are building a network where we can rely on each other and help each other out’

FILE - Dolly Parton arrives at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Grammy-winning singer, actor and humanitarian posted a video on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, of her singing just before getting her COVID-19 vaccine shot. Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee for coronavirus research. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
‘Vaccine, vaccine’: Dolly sings ‘Jolene’ rewrite before shot

The Grammy-winning legend turned 75 this year

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland speaks about the Fiscal update during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday November 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
COVID-19: Wage and rent subsidies, lockdown support to be extended until June

Chrystia Freeland says now is not time to lower levels of support

Many rural seniors are having to travel a long way to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Stettler residents are being told to go to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose. (Black Press file photo).
Rural central Alberta seniors have to travel far to get vaccines

Stettler residents are being directed to Red Deer, Drumheller or Camrose clinics

Samantha Sharpe, 25, was stabbed to death at Sunchild First Nation on Dec. 12, 2018. Chelsey Lagrelle was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for manslaughter in a Red Deer courtroom on Tuesday. Photo contributed
Central Alberta woman sentenced to 4 1/2 years for stabbing friend to death in 2018

Chelsey Lagrelle earlier pleaded guilty to stabbing Samantha Sharpe during argument

Calgary police say they received 80 hate crime complaints between January and November 2020. (Pixabay)
‘Racism is a real problem:’ Muslim women fearful following attacks in Edmonton

So far in 2021, three of seven hate-crime-related investigations have involved Somali-Muslim women

Most Read