Rocky Mountains in Alberta
Matt Thomason/Unsplash

The effects of coal mining in Alberta would ripple throughout the Prairies

Natasha Brubaker
3 months ago

Coal mining projects on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains are a threat to water beyond the province of Alberta—they affect people and ecosystems across the Prairies.

That’s why the Council of Canadians joined several other organizations—including conservation, Indigenous, water, landowner, and physician groups—to call on Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to step in.

While the government of Alberta has now paused coal exploration on previously-protected (Category 2) lands after widespread public opposition, this is only a temporary move. What’s more, mining projects in other areas, including Tent, Chinook, and Grassy Mountain, are still proceeding.

Protecting precious water resources—and the health and vitality of people, lands, and ecosystems that depend on them—is only possible when all coal activity in the Rockies is permanently stopped.

Why this is a federal responsibility

According to Canadian water law, the federal government is responsible for overseeing inter-jurisdictional waters. And more than half a century ago, the Governments of Canada, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba signed an agreement to ensure that transboundary waters in the Prairies are equitably allocated and protected.

That arrangement, called the Master Agreement on Apportionment (MAA), is based on the understanding that water use in one province can have ripple effects in others.

It was a profound recognition that collaboration and cooperation were needed to ensure that sufficient and healthy water was available for the lives and livelihoods of all those dependent on the water from the Rockies and the river headwaters to which they are home.

But now, coal developments on the Eastern Slopes, at the headwaters of major rivers and tributaries that supply water to millions of people across all Prairie provinces, are threatening that agreement.

They threaten the specific water quality and quantity requirements stipulated under the MAA, as well as the spirit of collaboration and consultation that the agreement has tried to foster.

As part of a coalition of concerned groups, the Council of Canadians has called on Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, to help uphold this important interprovincial agreement.

Coal mining irreparably harms water

The water flowing down the Eastern Slopes sustains the food production, drinking water supplies, recreation, tourism, and ecosystems of the foothills and prairies in Southern Alberta and on into Saskatchewan and Manitoba. 

Open-pit coal mining would be detrimental to both water quality and access.

It poisons the water with toxic concentrations of selenium, causing deformities, nerve damage, and reproductive failure in fish, mammals, and migratory birds. And as these animals are food for others, the food chain itself would be at risk. 

Currently, no effective method to prevent this contamination exists. New technologies that claim to prevent the release of these toxins are unproven.

In addition to the pollution from normal mining activity, there is also always the risk of a catastrophic failure. It was only eight years ago that the Obed Mine disaster occurred just east of Hinton, Alberta. The effects of this tragedy are still present in the Athabasca River to this day—and will be for decades, if not centuries.

Open-pit mining and the access roads to the sites also cause soil erosion. The topsoil of mountains is very thin and fragile. When this soil is lost, the land is less able to absorb rain and snowmelt and silt muddies the waters.

It doesn’t end there. There are much larger ripples. This area of the Rockies is the water source for farming, raising cattle, and providing water for cities and towns all along the Oldman River sub-basin.

For thousands of years, the Blackfoot nations and other Indigenous peoples have protected this water and land. Their treaty rights are also threatened by this planned mining.

The water from the Eastern Slopes provides the means for life as we know it in a drought-prone and water-scarce region.

In its haste to allow open-pit coal mining, the Alberta government is proposing new allocations of water in this region. These changes would allow water that would flow into the Oldman watershed to be diverted to support coal mining operations, which require significant amounts of water.

While the numbers may work on paper, nature is far more unpredictable. What would the choice be in a drought year with lower-than-average snowpack or rainfall: mining or water-rationing for farmers and ranchers?

Protect water in the Prairies!

The Council of Canadians calls on Minister Wilkinson to help uphold interprovincial water agreements in the Prairies—and in doing so, show his commitment to the well-being and prosperity of people in the region.

As we reflect on the choices before us, the right course becomes clear. Do we preserve the integrity of this region by protecting its water, its land, and all the lives and livelihoods it sustains? Or do we destroy a place that gives so much for a few years’ worth of minimal royalties and short-lived jobs?

This is our inheritance and our legacy. Simply put, the costs are too high and the risks too great.

Read our joint letter to Minister Wilkinson here.

We are also calling on Minister Wilkinson to designate the Tent Mountain Project for a federal impact assessment. The project is slated to extract 4,925 tonnes of coal per day—just under the threshold that would automatically trigger a federal review. Write to Minister Wilkinson now!