Alta. producers launch coal mining studies


Ranchers fighting against open-pit coal mining in the Eastern Slopes aren’t waiting for the provincial government to provide details about public consultations for a new coal policy for Alberta.

Producers have launched two independent studies to look at the potential impact of such projects, said Laura Laing of the Plateau Cattle Co.

A study into air quality affected by things such as dust potentially caused by open-pit coal mining is being funded by the Pekisko Group, which comprises ranchers and farmers between the Highwood and Oldman rivers in southwestern Alberta, she said.

Meanwhile, the nearby Livingstone Landowners Group is funding a study on the likely effect on water quality and quantity due to such projects, she added.

Laing spoke the same day a record-breaking fine of $60 million was assessed against Teck Coal, a subsidiary of Teck Resources. The company pleaded guilty under the federal Fisheries Act after releasing selenium and calcite into the Elk and Fording rivers in British Columbia in 2012.

Ranchers such as Laing have pointed to open-pit coal mining by Teck in the Elk Valley area of B.C. as a potential precursor of what could happen in nearby Alberta.

Although public consultations were originally slated Feb. 23 to start March 29, Albertans remained in the dark about what form they will take.

“The consultation process, you know, we’re still waiting like everybody else, and it’s tough to trust the process, right?” said Laing during an interview March 26.

Hundreds of people took part in an anti-coal development protest March 27 hosted by the Niitsitapi Water Protectors along the Reconciliation Bridge in Calgary. Niitsitapi is a word the Indigenous Kainai, Piikani and Siksika people of Alberta use to refer to themselves.

“Open-pit coal mining will degrade the environment and its life-sustaining gift of clear and clean water,” said a statement on the group’s website.

Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Feb. 23 the details of the consultation process will be announced before consultations begin March 29. Kavi Bal, director of strategic planning for the Office of the Premier, did not reply to an email March 26 by the Western Producer asking when the announcement will occur.

The provincial government needs to implement a third-party panel of experts to gather public input on a new coal policy for Alberta, Ian Urquhart, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association, said in an earlier interview.

“I would have hoped that the government would appreciate that through their actions, Albertans don’t trust them anymore.”

However, Savage said March 16 the provincial government will not be “prejudging what (Albertans) are going to say” on things such as coal leases on Category 2 lands.

“Albertans will tell us how they want to see coal development — if they want to see coal development,” she said during a meeting of the standing committee on resource stewardship.

“And if they want to see coal development, where it will be, whether it’s in Category 2 or 3, 4 lands, we want to hear from Albertans.”

The categories are part of a 45-year-old coal policy implemented in 1976 that was rescinded last year by the provincial government, easing the development of open-pit coal mines on the Eastern Slopes.

The decision raised fears of toxic levels of contaminants such as selenium entering the Oldman River system, potentially affecting everyone from ranchers and farmers to communities across much of Alberta.

After public opposition ranging from producers to Canadian entertainers such as Corb Lund, Jann Arden and k.d. lang, Savage announced Feb. 8 the provincial government was fully reinstating the policy.

Bal said in an email March 15 that plans for public consultations were being finalized.

“The coal consultation process is being designed to hear all of the perspectives on future coal development from Albertans, including First Nations.”

Mandy Olsgard, a senior toxicologist and risk assessor with Integrated Toxicology Solutions, is conducting the Pekisko Group’s independent study. She is a former senior toxicologist at the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), which reviews the development of oil, oilsands and coal resources in the province.

Olsgard said she left the AER due to concerns the provincial government has too much influence over the organization, resulting in what she said were economic rather than science-based decisions.

“And it was really hard to effect change from inside the organization.”

Plans for open-pit coal mining that include a proposed conveyor belt stretching 36 kilometres were mentioned in an investor presentation by Atrum Coal. It outlined the potential development of a large open-pit coal mine in Atrum’s Isolation South area, along with three satellite pits in Elan South.

The conveyor belt will cut through the grazing lease of Mac Blades’ Rocking P Ranch near Nanton, Alta., said lawyer Richard Harrison during a court hearing Jan. 19-20. Such development will also impact Laing and her husband, John Smith, of the nearby Plateau Cattle Co.

The hearing at the Court of Queen’s Bench was into a request by the three ranchers to hold a judicial review into the decision to rescind the coal policy, with the provincial government seeking to dismiss the bid.

Melissa Burkett, a lawyer for the provincial government, told the court the case is “a classic example of what happens when courts are turned into political arenas.” Justice Richard Neufeld said Jan. 20 he hoped to make his decision within the next two months.

Atrum announced March 26 it was pausing its Elan project, citing the upcoming coal policy consultations in Alberta. The decision caused shares in the Australian company to plummet 70 percent.

Olsgard will model and predict air quality concentrations for particulate matter from coal development, which can potentially include trace elements such as arsenic. These will be compared to limits set by regulations for the areas where the ranchers live, helping determine potential impacts on the health of livestock as well as humans, she said.

The study could be useful for situations such as companies applying for approval of open-pit coal mines, as well as help government officials with the creation of provincial policies, she said.

“And what’s unique is that it’s being funded by landowners in the area. We usually only see these types of studies being done by proponents.”

The Alces Group and the Integral Ecology Group are conducting the water study that the Livingstone Landowners Group is funding.

“The Oldman River watershed is one of the driest regions in Alberta and is facing increasing uncertainty in water balance because of increasing demand and reductions in water supply,” said lead consultant Brad Stelfox of the Alces Group in a statement March 5 by the Livingstone Landowners Group.

The provincial government has proposed changing a water allocation order for the Oldman River system above the Oldman Reservoir. The proposal would provide more water for use in open-pit coal mining.