A new scientific study on controversial metallurgical coal mines being proposed in southern Alberta’s famed eastern slopes says that the open-pit mines will leave a massive and irreversible footprint on water quality and quantity in the arid region.
“Our study has identified significant risks to water quality and quantity and biological diversity in the Oldman River watershed,” Brad Stelfox, the lead author, told The Tyee. Stelfox is the province’s most prominent land use ecologist and founder of the ALCES group which models impact of human activity on natural systems over time.
For starters, says the study, the coal mines would destroy 92 square kilometres of “critical wildlife habitat” and working alpine landscapes in the scenic southern Rockies. They would replace ancient forest groves, native fescue grasses and grizzly bear environs with open-pit mines and large rock waste piles leaching selenium.
Approximately 32 square kilometres of flowing mountain streams and creeks — a prime refuge for cutthroat trout — would be destroyed in the headwaters of the Oldman River watershed.
As a consequence the eight open-pit mines currently proposed by Australian mining firms would disturb an area on the same scale as Teck Resources' massive coal project in B.C.’s Elk Valley.
That 140-square-kilometre mining project has released large volumes of selenium and other chemicals into water supplies killing large populations of cutthroat trout and changing water quality throughout the Elk River watershed resulting in record fines. It has also contaminated groundwater in the mining community of Sparwood, B.C.
Last spring the Livingstone Landowners Group, a local Alberta organization that has been fighting to conserve the eastern slopes since 2004, commissioned the report in response to repeated Alberta government claims that the mines wouldn’t affect any important watersheds or have any noticeable impacts.
The comprehensive study modelled the impacts of the mines on the land and headwaters of the Oldman River watershed under two-mine and eight-mine scenarios over a five-decade period.
“It’s all about risk. On the one hand we have unparalleled natural capital in the Oldman River watershed,” said Stelfox.
On the other hand coal mining would consume large chunks of that natural capital and change the quality and quantity of water for downstream users forever, added Stelfox.
In particular the study found that selenium, a toxic pollutant that leaches from waste rock piles, would alter water quality in the region whether industry gets the go ahead to proceed with two or as many as eight proposed mines.
“Uncertainty about industry’s ability to manage that selenium risk is very high,” said Stelfox.
According to the report’s modelling, industry would have to prevent the release of 95 per cent of all selenium from mine sites “to meet all water quality standards in the upper reaches of the watershed, and even higher attenuation levels would be needed to prevent harm to the smallest streams nearest to the mines.”
Even as far downstream as Lethbridge, “90 per cent attenuation levels would be required to meet standards for protection of aquatic life.”
But industry hasn’t been able to achieve those standards for selenium capture, said Stelfox. “We have been unable to find evidence that companies mining high-selenium coal deposits of this type can consistently achieve these attenuation levels at full operational scale.”
In contrast, Australian coal speculators, which have commissioned no studies on cumulative impacts, offer a rosier picture for the region, using the term “New Age Coal.”
Riversdale Resources, for example, boasts that they are “committed to using innovative, sustainable and mindful best practices.” It also claims that open-pit coal mines are “compatible” with tourism in the Rockies.
But that’s not what the report found. It calculated, for example, that carbon emissions from the development of the mines (including extraction and burning their output over a 50-year period) would roughly equal seven years’ worth of Alberta’s current emissions — making it impossible for either Canada or Alberta to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The LLG report also underscored how coal mining would exacerbate a variety of water issues in drought-prone southern Alberta.
Given that water is already fully allocated in the Oldman River watershed, junior rights holders may not receive their full allocation during drought years. Coal mines, which consume lots of water, will make that situation worse, said the report.
“Any additional water consumption by mining will exacerbate this conflict and may result in additional water shortages. This problem is likely to worsen if, as most climate models predict, climate change increases frequency of droughts.”
Coal mining also challenges existing sustainable economies in the Oldman River watershed. The region currently supports one of Canada’s oldest ranching communities that has successfully conserved the region’s native fescue grasses.
But coal mining could use up to 40 per cent of mean flow from small and abundant streams in this area. In fact mine water consumption could equal 27 per cent of total gross water demand or the same of the “Oldman River watershed’s entire 1.1 million cattle population.”
The report also questions the adequacy of provincial and federal environmental regulations. Riversdale Resources, which is proposing to take the top off Grassy Mountain in the Crowsnest Pass, claims that Canada, a mining republic just like Australia, “has one of the world’s most extensive regulatory systems.”
In contrast the report found that oversight on abandoned and closed coal mines had been extremely poor in Alberta.
Coal mines in the McLeod River drainage, for example, “have similarly led to release of selenium and other pollutants such as sodium, aluminum, calcite and nitrate, many of which exceed government safety guidelines for some or all of aquatic habitat and irrigation use.”
In addition the coal industry cannot restore mountains to their previous ecological function. The industry, just like oil and gas, also has a long and troubled history of securing funds for reclamation. Alberta’s auditor general has repeatedly criticized the government’s mine financial security program because it has let liabilities outstrip security bonds by 30 to one.
The LLG report estimates “that only about 25 per cent of disturbed mine area in the Oldman River watershed will be reclaimed by the end of the 50-year study period, leaving a substantial reclamation bill for the future.”
On June 16, Robin Campbell, president of the Coal Association of Canada, responded to The Tyee’s request for comment with this statement: “We will not comment on a study that we have not had the opportunity to review in detail. However, we will say that the coal industry is committed to operating in an environmentally responsible manner and in accordance with the comprehensive regulatory requirements in Alberta and Canada. We agree selenium monitoring and management are important and are committed to addressing this and other issues through the policy review process that is now underway.”
The Tyee also reached out to Riversdale Resources and has not received a response.
The recommendations of a joint federal provincial environment assessment review on one of the proposed mines, the Grassy Mountain project, are expected to be released this Friday.
That joint review panel pointedly refused to look at cumulative impacts.
Canada is the world’s third largest exporter of coking coal used to make steel — largely due to B.C.’s Teck project in the Elk Valley.
The LLG report concludes by noting that Land-use Framework of the Government of Alberta “mandates that an exhaustive cumulative effects assessment is required before approving regional coal mining of the scale considered in this report. No such assessment has yet taken place for the Oldman River watershed.”
The study, which includes both a technical and general report, was paid for by Alberta landowners and private donors. Six different scientists with expertise ranging from hydrology to land ecology contributed to the reports.
One of the scientists, Bill Donahue, formally worked for the provincial government as Alberta's chief monitoring officer, the executive director of both monitoring and science in Alberta Environment and Parks.
Disclosure: Andrew Nikiforuk is a landowner in southern Alberta and would be directly affected by the proposed coal mines. He has supported the conservation work of the LLG for years.