The Rockies and Coal Mining

SAGE submission to the Coal Policy Committee
June 9, 2021

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Time to Step Up and Protect Our Water

Published in The Lethbridge Herald
28 April 2021

The government of Peter Lougheed implemented the Coal Policy after substantial consultation and expert review over a period of four years. They decided to restrict coal development in the mountains. Their conclusion was that the Eastern Slopes were vital to the economy and the well-being of human population because this region was the primary source of clean water for the province.

Minister Nixon assures Albertans [Government Will Continue to Protect Alberta’s Water, Lethbridge Herald, April 17, 2021] that the water is being protected and that the rules remain unchanged. This assurance is difficult to reconcile with the numbers. The Oldman Allocation Order (Section 3) provides that an allocation may only be made for one of seven purposes (municipal, commercial, recreation, community water supply, agriculture, irrigation and industrial purposes). Allocations of water for industrial purposes must not exceed 150 acre-feet, per this order.

For context, let’s remember that this government negotiated with Australian coal mining corporations (seemingly outside of public enquiry) and rescinded the 1976 Coal Policy without notice and without consultation with Albertans. They then opened the Eastern Slopes to coal leases and immediately permitted temporary licenses for removal of water (outside of the allowed allocation) for exploration. After massive expressions of public outrage, they reinstated the Coal Policy … well, except for the already leased lands and without addressing the Grassy Mountain and Tent Mountain coal mining projects already put in process. There appears to be no cost-benefit or net-jobs analysis for this fixation on coal mining.  

For the Grassy Mountain project alone, Benga Mining Limited has applied for the total 150 acre-feet allowed in the Oldman Allocation Order. In addition, they have requested 100 acre-feet to be transferred permanently from a water license held by Devon Canada (diverted from the Crowsnest River) and 200 acre-feet transferred temporarily for 25 years from a license for municipal purposes held by Blairmore (diverted from York Creek). This is for only the one mine. Where will the water come from for mining the leases that have already been sold? What will the impact be on all of these small creeks when large volumes of water are removed? Is this what Minister Nixon was saying?

The UCP government has promised Albertans a consultation process for a new Coal Policy. The Terms of Reference for this consultation does not include water allocation. It also does not include a discussion on potential water contamination (like selenium, arsenic or calcite). It does not include a discussion on parks and other recreational uses on public land, and it does not include a discussion on future economies based on tourism (assuming there are tourists interested in industrial landscapes). The UCP government wants this process done by the end of the year – which is nothing like the robust process used by Premier Lougheed. Does this sound like protecting anything (except coal mining)?

So, you can see nothing has changed. The UCP government is driven to divert public attention using a faux-consultation while they continue to entrench coal mining along the Eastern Slopes. There are no apparent plans for protecting the quality or quantity of water needed by Albertans and an agriculture-based economy. All this cheap land and free water to mine coal for a 1% royalty. And all this without a risk analysis for lost jobs and other costs in the downstream economy. It brings to mind the adage about selling one’s birthright for a mess of pottage.

It is time, Lethbridge, to step up and protect our water.

Published in The Lethbridge Herald
24 March 2021

What is Metallurgical Coal Good For?

The eastern slopes region of Alberta is the source of the headwaters providing fresh water for wildlife and prairie communities living downstream. It has been a highly desirable destination for tourism and year-round recreational activities like camping, hiking and skiing, attracting residents and revenue. Despite vague assurances from the UCP government, allowing coal mining along the eastern slopes is still very much under consideration.

We have become more aware of the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal methods of coal extraction –risk to endangered wildlife, noise, air pollution and water pollution – but we haven’t heard much about greenhouse gas emissions. There is the perception being circulated that ‘metallurgical’ coal is somehow different and less damaging to the environment compared to ‘thermal’ coal. This is not the case. Coal is classified from high-carbon anthracite, to bituminous, to subbituminous, to lower carbon lignite. The final application (steel making, cement making, electricity generation, etc.) of coal depends on process requirements and economics. Steel making has traditionally used the higher-grade bituminous coal which is further processed into a porous mass with fewer impurities – this is called coking coal. In the end, however, the coal is burned and emissions are generated.

The dominant method of making steel is the blast furnace/basic oxygen furnace process. Coking coal is used to reduce iron ore in a blast furnace to make pig iron. The carbon remaining in the pig iron is then burned off using oxygen to make steel. For each tonne of steel about 770 kg of metallurgical coal is consumed, resulting in 1.73 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere. Worldwide, this amounts to over 2 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted for steel making each year. This sector is the second highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (after concrete making).

The Grassy Mountain Coal project alone (and there may be others) is expected to produce 4.5 million tonnes of coal each year for the next twenty-five years. This mine will ultimately contribute roughly 8 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year – equivalent to almost 2 million cars. Opening up Alberta for coal mining is incongruous with global efforts to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within thirty years (let alone reducing emissions by 40% by the end of this decade). The UN Environmental Programme has recently stated that coal use must be phased out in all sectors to moderate the emerging climate crisis.

Are there alternatives? Yes. Though steel is a highly recycled material, still over 20% of it ends up in the landfill. Recycled steel contributes considerably fewer emissions. Also, new technologies for steel making are replacing metallurgical coal with hydrogen as a fuel. It still takes energy to make hydrogen, but it is cleaner to use overall than metallurgical coal. Using traditional electricity sources to make hydrogen, emission reductions of 20 to 30 percent are immediately achievable. Using renewable energy technologies to produce hydrogen for steelmaking can potentially reduce emissions by 80%. These technologies are operating in pilot phases in German, Sweden and Finland.

With the world turning its attention to meeting reduction targets in greenhouse gas emissions, it is an inauspicious time to begin to open up our eastern slopes to coal mining. The steelmaking industry is directing its attention to reducing its emissions by using new technologies that no longer rely on metallurgical coal. This is yet another reason it is not the time for Alberta to engage in coal exploitation. Alberta needs a future-oriented economy.

The Southern Alberta Group for the Environment is a leading voice for a healthy and environmentally sustainable community. For more information, visit our site at


Albanese says we can’t replace steelmaking coal. But we already have green alternatives.          

Fact Sheet Steelmaking Coal: Teck Resources  PDF

Comparison of Energy Consumption and CO2 Emission for Three Steel Production Routes

Metal Industry Emissions  PDF

Report on Annual Worldwide Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Blast Furnace
Iron Ore Smelting and Coke-making

A Tale of Two Coals

Grassy Mountain Coal Project

29 November 2019: Climate and Environment

World Steel Recycling Figures 2015 – 2019
          World Steel Recycling Figures 2015 – 2019

H2 @ Scale Workshop: D of Energy
          H2 @ Scale Workshop  PDF

Hydrogen as a Clean Alternative in the Iron and Steel Industry
          Hydrogen as a Clean Alternative in the Iron and Steel Industry

Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle
          Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle



See our Letters on Coal Policy and Southern Alberta @ Letters to Government.

Published in The Lethbridge Herald
6 February 2021

Parks, Recreation and Coal Mining

The eastern slopes region of Alberta is recognized as important habitat and a migration corridor for wildlife ranging from Yellowstone to the Yukon. Roughly 53,000 square kilometers of this corridor has been opened to coal mining by the UCP government without public consultation, and seemingly without consideration.

This region is the source of the headwaters, it is an important carbon sink, and it preserves local biodiversity. It has also been a highly desirable destination for tourism and year-round recreational activities like camping, hiking and skiing, attracting residents and revenue. Can we have both coal mining and natural areas for wildlife and nature-based recreation?

The decision by the UCP government to open mountaintop removal operations for coal mining will destroy large areas of wilderness, including river valleys that represent remaining habitat for some species-at-risk. Extensive industrial traffic, noise and water pollution will impact wildlife habitat and human use for distances well outside of the coal mining operations, particularly downstream. In addition, continued coal extraction perpetuates reliance on the fossil fuels that contribute heavily to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Very large areas of public land are now open for coal exploration, and leases for coal mining operations have already been sold to foreign corporations for a pittance. It has been reported that one-third of the Oldman North provincial recreation area is covered by a coal lease with a proposed mine pit on the north border of the recreation area.  Other popular recreation areas that are surrounded by coal leases include Livingstone Falls, Honeymoon Creek, Racehorse and Dutch Creek.

A recent research article titled, ‘Identifying key ecosystem service providing areas to inform national-scale conservation planning’ developed new methods that integrate measures of the capacity of ecosystems to provide services (like carbon storage, clean water and nature-based recreation) with indicators of human demand. The paper identified ‘ecosystem hotspots’ in Canada that ‘should be the focus of conservation actions.’ One hotspot identified was the British Columbia-Alberta border, based on wilderness recreation.

This report suggests that a complete management planning framework would include aspects like biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services (including the provision of freshwater but also flood mitigation and soil retention). Management planning would also respect cultural and social impacts of significant land-use changes like coal mining.

The UCP government has suddenly decided to open the eastern slopes to coal mining after 45 years of protection. Considering the long-term risks to our region and the economic development options that have been sacrificed, such as nature-based tourism, this decision demanded, at a minimum, robust public consultation, sound economic analysis, and careful scientific study. Albertans got none of this.

We encourage you to share your opinions on this topic with your MLAs. The Southern Alberta Group for the Environment is a leading voice for a healthy and environmentally sustainable community. For more information, visit our site at

Mitchell, M.G.E. (2021). Identifying key ecosystem service providing areas to inform national-scale conservation planning. In Environmental Research Letters, Volume 16, Number 1.  (

Coal, Calcite and Cutthroats

Published in, Lethbridge Herald
26 November 2020

Calcite build-up on streambeds is an environmental hazard of open-pit mountaintop coal mining proposed in the headwaters of the Oldman River. As with selenium pollution, described in a previous article, water flowing through waste rock accumulated during the coal mining process dissolves calcium carbonate and carries it downstream. Unlike selenium, calcium carbonate is not considered a toxic pollutant in water. However, when calcium carbonate reaches a high enough concentration, it solidifies into calcite. The process is similar to the buildup that forms in tea kettles and humidifiers. Calcite coats the stream bottom and, in effect, turns it into concrete. In some cases streambed sands and gravels can only be broken free with hammer blows.

Where calcite accumulates, the stream bottom becomes uninhabitable to invertebrates that form the base of the aquatic food chain. Aquatic plants are smothered. Trout that use an undulating movement to flush sediment and excavate hollows in loose gravels for laying eggs, referred to as redds, can no longer spawn. This is especially devasting to native cutthroat and bull trout, both “threatened” species, federally and provincially.

In reaches where a stream bottom becomes cemented, bank erosion increases causing more sediment to be released and the stream to over-widen. This impact on streams has previously been observed in Eastern Slopes watersheds experiencing a high degree of surface disturbance from logging and other industrial development, including Racehorse Creek and Dutch Creek. Adverse effects on reproduction of native trout have been noted.

Calcite formation is occurring downstream of coal mines operated by Teck Resources Limited in southeastern BC in the Elk River valley. Monitoring has detected increase in calcite over time with 30% of the river and stream channels surveyed in 2018 impacted by calcite at levels higher than background. Recent studies to assess effects on Westslope Cutthroat Trout, a Species at Risk, found density of redds decreased as calcite concentration increased in stream reaches.

Teck, under its permit to operate, is required by Environment and Climate change Canada to reduce calcite levels in mine-affected streams in the Elk Valley. This direction is issued under the federal Fisheries Act. Since October, 2017 the company is experimenting with adding antiscalant (a chemical that inhibits formation and precipitation of crystallized mineral salts) to a stream to inhibit formation of calcite. A geo-synthetic cover over waste rock is also being tried to prevent water leaching of calcium carbonate. Cost of these mitigation measures is estimated to be several hundred million dollars.

The proposed Grassy Mountain Mine north of Blairmore straddles the valleys of two streams that are habitat for Westslope Cutthroat Trout – Blairmore Creek and Gold Creek, tributaries of the Crowsnest River. This native species once inhabited most streams in southwestern Alberta from the alpine to the prairies, but now occupies only a small fraction of its original distribution. A strategy for recovery of its habitat has been developed and is in the process of being implemented. If the mine is allowed to proceed, recovery efforts will be undercut and calcite build-up in spawning habitat would become one more risk pushing this threatened species to the brink of extinction.


Selenium's Impact on the Environment

Published in, Lethbridge Herald
23 October 2020

As residents living along the Oldman River anticipate the impacts of open-pit coal mining in our headwaters, we should know more about the potential changes in water quality and their effects on river health and, therefore, our health.

Open-pit coal mining involves the removal of rock that sits above the coal seams that the mining company targets for extraction. This rock, or overburden, is typically dumped into the river valleys near the mine where it is exposed to weathering. It is the weathering process that releases pollutants like cadmium, nitrate, sulphate, iron, uranium and selenium into the environment over time – in the form of particulates in the air but, more significantly, into river systems.

Like some other elements, selenium is biphasic which means that it is necessary for life in small concentrations but becomes toxic to aquatic species in concentrations as low as 1.5 mg/l. Selenium ions are soluble in water, so they don’t settle in containment ponds. When released to the environment, selenium (as selenite and selenides) bioaccumulates in the aquatic system. That is, the selenium increases in concentration as it passes from plankton to aquatic invertebrates to fish that live higher in the food web. As such, fish are an important indicator species for water contamination of this type. Species that consume fish along the food chain, like birds and even humans, are also at risk of the health impacts resulting from higher selenium accumulating in their bodies.

You may have heard about the long-term environmental damage and health impacts in Appalachia or in the coal mining regions of Australia. Closer to home, however, look across the continental divide, to the Elk Valley, where mountaintop coal mining has been conducted for many years. Industry water quality reports have indicated a steady rise of selenium and other pollutants in rivers downstream of these coal mining operations. It is no surprise that the Regional Aquatic Effects Monitoring Program (RAEMP) has measured increased levels of selenium in aquatic species that pose greater risks for birth defects and reproductive failures. Trout populations downstream of Tech coal mines have reportedly collapsed in recent years.

In response to this issue, the United States has very recently set selenium standards for transboundary waters, an issue that British Columbia has shown a reluctance to address. This is complicated by the admission of major coal operators that they are unable to control the release of selenium pollution. In other words, once the damage is done, it is virtually impossible to contain, and it persists for decades.

In summary, selenium is one of a number of water pollutants that can be expected from mountaintop removal techniques of coal mining in Alberta’s eastern slopes. We have a current example of rising selenium levels in the Elk and Fording Rivers using the same techniques in similar bedrock as is proposed in our headwaters. And, the technology is not available to control the release of selenium into rivers nor address pollution over the long term after it happens.

The Government of Alberta recently changed the Coal Policy to allow open pit coal mining along the eastern slopes, with the exception of Category 1 land. This, in effect, was in direct response to the expressed desires of mining companies to streamline the application process. Though these sorts of projects may create some employment in the short term, there seems to be little consideration of the environmental impacts in the long term. Residents along the Oldman River rely on safe water for an agriculturally-based economy, including water demand for irrigation and livestock operations, not to mention human use. There is mounting opposition to the unilateral decision to change the Coal Policy that allows these sorts of coal mining operations to operate in our region – your MLA may want to hear your opinion.



Grassy Mountain Coal Project Joint Review Panel (October 2020).

Oldman Watershed Council Submission:

‘You can’t rebuild a mountain’: fallout of open-pit mining discussed.
Lethbridge Herald (October 3, 2020)

Acute Selenium Toxicity. US National Library of Medicine.

Koocanusa Exceeds Selenium Standard. Elk Valley Coal News (July 19, 2020).

Deadly Waters: Trout Populations Collapse Below Tech Coal Mines (March 19, 2020).

Montana Proposes New Rules to Stem Canadian Coal Mine Pollution. Montana Public Radio (September 25, 2020).

EPA Weighs in on Teck Water Treatment Closure. Montana Watershed Coordination Council.

U.S. demands explanation from province over river pollution from B.C. mines. CBC (May 11, 2020).

Technical Report Overview (2017). Teck Coal Ltd.,2017-(March-31,2018).pdf

Elk River Watershed and Lake Koocanusa British Columbia, Aquatic Environment Sythnesis Report (2014)

Screening assessment Selenium and its compounds. Government of Canada (2017).

Understanding and Documenting the Scientific Basis of Selenium Ecological Protection in Support of Site-Specific Guidelines Development for Lake Koocanusa, Montana, U.S.A., and British Columbia, Canada. U.S. Geological Survey (2020).

Riversdale Resources Grassy Mountain Coal Project: Surface Water Quality Environmental Impact Assessment Report. Benga Mining Ltd. (2015).

Analysis of water quality conditions and trends for the long-term river network: Oldman River, 1966-2055. Government of Alberta (2007).


Is Mountaintop Coal Mining in the Oldman headwaters worth the Risk?

Published in, Lethbridge Herald
15 August 2020

For the first time in four decades, headwaters of the Oldman River are again under threat from open pit coal mining.

Expansive scars of coal mines on Tent Mountain south of Coleman and Grassy Mountain mine north of Blairmore, projects that fizzled out by 1980, remain stark reminders of companies that left without cleaning up their mess. The Alberta Coal Policy adopted by the Lougheed government in 1976 restricted coal exploration and development along the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains due to 'marginal economic benefits' and 'important environmental values, such as wildlife migration and headwaters areas'. With rescinding of that policy by the current government, coal companies are back proposing to reopen and expand surface mining on Tent Mountain and Grassy Mountain and explore large areas of mountainous country west of the Livingstone Range north to the Highwood River.

Coal mining, particularly surface mining in mountains, is one of the most brutal assaults by humans on the Earth. The changes in natural landscapes and headwaters ecosystems are profound. Vegetation and soils that have evolved over millennia are stripped to reveal ancient bedrock. Using explosives and some of the largest machines on earth, mountaintops are shattered and removed to expose coal seams. 'Overburden' is dumped into adjacent valleys. Roads are carved into the diminishing mountain sides to haul extracted coal away in giant trucks to valley bottom processing plants. Water falling as rain and snow that was naturally absorbed by vegetation and soil rushes unchecked and unfiltered to valley-bottom streams that become seriously disrupted by altered flows and contaminants. Resident fish and wildlife are destroyed or displaced for untold generations.

John Prine captured for the 60’s generation the profound sense of destruction and loss that is wrought by mountaintop coal mining in his song Paradise – 'Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away'. To witness the loss of a mountain paradise by coal mining, southern Albertans don’t need to travel all the way to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky but rather can peer across the continental divide into the Elk River and its tributary valleys (including Fording River) in British Columbia. Five massive open-pit coal projects, operated by Teck Resources, have flattened mountains and filled valleys with piles of rubble. Biodiversity has been significantly impacted, including habitats for whitebark pine, Westslope cutthroat trout, grizzly bear and bighorn sheep.

A more insidious impact is the selenium that leaches from the previously buried rock now exposed to air and water. Naturally occurring in soils and plants, selenium is an essential trace element in healthy diets of animals and humans. However at high concentrations selenium can cause neurological disorders in humans, liver damage and paralysis in other animals, and birth defects and reproductive failure in fish. Waterborne selenium can enter the food chain where it bio accumulates. Toxic effects of selenium on aquatic life, fish and birds have been documented in the mountaintop coal mining regions of the Appalachians and more recently the Elk Valley of BC, extending up to 200 kilometres downstream in Montana. Sparwood’s drinking water supply has become contaminated.

Residents of the Oldman River Basin rely on plentiful, clean water flowing from the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains for survival and economic well-being including food production. Southern Albertans value our headwaters region for its scenic natural landscapes, wildlife and unsurpassed outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities. Experience elsewhere confirms that mountaintop coal mining places all that at risk. Albertans in the 1970s, based on experience, decided it was not worth the risk.

Why does today’s government think it is?

Further Reading:

Off the Beaten Path with Chris & Connie
Tent Mountain Was Torn a New One

Alberta Coal Policy (1976): Alberta Wilderness Association Briefing Note. (PDF)

Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining. Yale Environment 360 (October 13, 2009)

Elk Valley Cumulative Effects Assessment and Management Report. 2018. (PDF)

Selenium Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.

Mountaintop mining poisons fish. Science News (March 1, 2010).

From Canadian Coal Mines, Toxic Pollution That Knows No Borders. Yale Environment 360 (April 1, 2019)