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Alberta Coal Rush: Who will win and who will lose? (Part 2)

The economic boom promised by the coal industry is a fairy tale woven from speculation and wishful thinking. Missing from the story are the economic and environmental costs of coal.

As Part 1 of this series on the new coal rush in Alberta revealed, the economic case for new coal developments in the Rockies’ Eastern Slopes collapses upon closer examination. The numbers simply don’t add up. And the promised revenues and jobs are unlikely to materialize.

But this is only part of the story. Coal mining has significant costs, and those costs far outweigh the modest economic benefits.

Poisoned water

Water is the lifeblood of the Eastern Slopes and the prairies into which it flows. Coal mining has numerous harmful effects on water that merge into a cascade of negative consequences for those living downstream.

The biggest danger is selenium, a mineral that can be extremely harmful to ecosystems when it’s in high concentration. It’s an undisputed fact that both active and inactive mines can cause selenium to leach into nearby waters. The issue is not if selenium will be in the water; it is how much.

There is no proven technology or treatment that successfully mitigates selenium pollution from open-pit coal mining. While it is clear that existing technologies are not working, new, state-of-the-art mitigation technologies are also failing to effectively treat selenium contamination, and in some cases are releasing even more toxic forms of pollution into the water.

With at least seven proposed mines still under consideration and further exploration proposed in the Eastern Slopes, the amount of selenium that could potentially enter the water supply could be catastrophic.

The Eastern Slopes are the headwaters to the Oldman River watershed. This watershed—which is part of the South Saskatchewan River Basin—provides drinking water to over 1.7 million people who live downstream. It is also the primary source of water for ranching and farming operations across the southern prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Communities in the region are concerned that the selenium released from mining operations would poison the water they rely on.

The experience of Sparwood, British Columbia is instructive. Selenium pollution from Teck’s metallurgical coal mines contaminated the water in nearby wells to such a degree that the water is no longer safe to drink.

Importantly, this toxic level of selenium contamination occurred despite all the selenium mitigation technologies that Teck had put in place.

In order for the residents of Sparwood to have safe drinking water, Teck is paying for bottled water to be distributed and new wells to be dug. The question that remains is: who will pay for this safe drinking water after the mine is closed and the company has moved on? Selenium contamination is a long-term issue, lasting decades if not centuries.

Selenium also builds up in bodies of still water such as lakes and reservoirs. This process is called bioaccumulation. As a result, bodies of waters that are located a great distance downstream from coal mining activity can see dangerously high levels of selenium pollution.

Coal mines in British Columbia are causing levels of selenium that are toxic to fish and wildlife in as far away as Lake Koocanusa in Montana—165 kilometres away.

Bioaccumulation is also a real risk for the Old Man Reservoir, which is the main source of water storage in southern Alberta and about 60 kilometres away from the site of the proposed coal mining projects.

If the water supply becomes unsafe for consumption, the costs of providing clean water would be enormous. In addition to concerns around the health risks of selenium for humans, ranchers and farmers also fear for their livestock.

Who gets the water?

Water allocation is another issue.

Coal mines require substantial amounts of water and the Alberta government is rewriting the water use and allocation rules for the region to accommodate the companies’ requests for increased access.

A report commissioned by the Livingstone Landowners group found that if all eight mines proposed in the Oldman River watershed were to go ahead, they could use up to 40 per cent of the flow from those streams. Even though Grassy Mountain was denied approval, the seven other mining projects under consideration would still use substantial amounts of the available water.

This is particularly concerning given the drought-prone nature of the region, and the further impacts on snow and rainfall that are expected to result from climate change. Meanwhile, agricultural and residential water use in the region is already forecasted to increase by 46 per cent between 2006 and 2030 as well.

Changes to water quantity can affect the impact of selenium. One of the ways nature mitigates selenium contamination is by its dilution. As contaminated water flows into other moving, larger waterways, the increased volume of water dilutes selenium to levels safe for consumption. However, if water from Oldman watershed is diverted for coal mining operations, the water volumes downstream would be lower and the natural dilution process compromised.

In addition to increasing the concentration of selenium and other toxins in drinking water, changes to existing water allocations would also impact current economic activity and future growth. Agriculture, ranching, manufacturing, tourism, technology, and a variety of other enterprises are envisioned for the region’s economic future—and they all depend on water to succeed.

Outdoor recreation and tourism are creating local jobs and attracting visitors. These industries are growing in the Eastern Slopes, but coal development could take away much of their business. World-class fly-fishing and other water-based recreation in the Eastern Slopes would also be endangered by pollution from new mining operations. The devastating effects of selenium on fish populations is being seen over the border in British Columbia. Active coal mines and decapitated mountains will also deter outdoor enthusiasts and visitors from visiting Alberta to experience the majestic glory of the Rockies.

Conversations around how to wisely use the region’s limited water to allow for economic growth and a healthy environment have been ongoing for decades. Coal mining development would be highly counterproductive to long-term sustainable growth for the region and undermine long-standing plans to diversify the area’s economy.

Health Risks from open-pit mining

If these projects proceed, miners and residents could breathe air polluted by coal dust for decades.

Coal mining activities and wind erosion of waste rock piles produce dust that is a toxic blend of lead, mercury, nickel, tin, cadmium, antimony, and arsenic. There may be no safe threshold for human exposure to coal dust. People living near coal mines are more likely to experience chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease, as well as increased risks of lung and digestive system cancers. 

Black lung still kills coal miners to this day. This disease does not only affect coal miners who work underground. Surface miners, such as those who would work at the mines proposed for the Eastern Slopes, also develop black lung.

Illnesses that could be caused by exposure to coal dust would increase costs to the health care system. The personal cost in terms of lost health and lives is incalculable.

Remediation and Reclamation

Waste rock piles from open pit mining contain selenium, arsenic, nitrates, and other pollutants. Exposed to the elements, this waste continues to contaminate the land, water, and air long after the mines are closed.

In Alberta, mines that are designated as reclaimed (such as the Gregg River mine) or partially reclaimed (such as Luscar Creek mine) are still leaching selenium into the water, resulting in contamination exceeding the standards deemed safe for aquatic life.

Coal companies deliberately downplay the environmental risks of shuttered mines and overstate their ability to effectively reclaim and remediate them. This pattern holds true for the proposed projects in the Eastern Slopes.

In a recent interview with CBC News, geotechnical engineer Gord McKenna stated: “Right now, the mines promise the world — and the regulators require them to promise the world — to get their first permit. They promise what is possible rather than what is deliverable.”

Based on the inferiority of their product, unproven reserve amounts, and the fluctuations in coal’s market price, there is a real possibility that some of these mines could go bankrupt, leaving tax-payers on the hook for millions of dollars in clean-up costs and a legacy of pollution and destruction.

It is also important to be clear on what reclamation is… and isn’t. Reclamation is not restoration. Once the peaks of these mountains have been blown off and carved away, they are gone. Forever.

The choice before us: folly or foresight

The costs of coal are enormous.

Coal development will not revitalize the economy of southern Alberta. To the contrary, coal mining will leave a legacy of damage and destruction to the economy and the environment.

We must change the lens through which we see and evaluate coal projects—and all resource development projects. It is not the economy versus the environment. Rather, a healthy environment ensures a healthy economy for generations to come.

Further coal development does not align with a sustainable future.

The direction to go is clear: Alberta—and Canada—need a future beyond coal.