Skip to content

Protect Our Water and Say No to Coal

The Council of Canadians Edmonton Chapter
Corinne Benson, Peter Loney, Richard Merry, Brian Sawyer, Josefine Singh

After mounting public pressure, the Alberta government announced in early February that it would reverse its decision to rescind the 1976 Coal Policy. Instead, it will be launching consultations for a new, updated coal policy.

But while the reversal is a major win, we need to keep pushing to make sure the province moves away from coal for good. 

On February 10, 2021, the Council of Canadians Edmonton Chapter hosted an Alberta-wide townhall, with more than 380 people in attendance, to discuss why it’s important, now more than ever, to Protect Our Water and Say No to Coal

First Nations’ rights, water, and land

Expanding coal mining in the Rockies would further violate the Aboriginal and Treaty Rights of people living in Treaty 7, said Latasha Calf Robe, who is from Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe) and an organizer with the Niitsitapi Water Protectors.

These plans extend the legacy of broken treaties, which were never a surrender of the land, she told the townhall.

The government failed on its duty to consult with First Nations when it issued extensive new coal leases in June 2019, a duty that is stipulated under Section 35 of the Constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Ms. Calf Robe said. 

Much of the coal mining currently underway or slated to take place will happen on some of the few lands that remain for traditional hunting, fishing, and plant gathering, she added. Air and water contamination by selenium, heavy metals, and coal dust would also create severe health issues. And with the influx of itinerant mine workers, there are also concerns about alcohol, drugs, and the safety of First Nations women and girls. 

The only way to protect First Nations and all people who reside in the area is to oppose all coal development on the Eastern Slopes, Ms. Calf Robe said. 

Threats to water supply and allocation

Coal mining uses enormous amounts of water. And the Alberta government’s plans to give coal companies access to billions of litres of water for free, in a region already facing droughts and water shortages, has raised serious alarms.  

Ian Urquhart, Conservation Director at the Alberta Wilderness Association, told the townhall about worrying changes proposed by the Alberta United Conservative Party (UCP) government to the Oldman watershed allocation. 

When the Oldman dam was built in southwestern Alberta in 1991, an allocation order was created to ensure that most of the water would go to upstream communities to help with irrigation.

But while the current Allocation Order sets aside only 1.4 per cent of that water for industry, Dr. Urquhart pointed out that the proposed changes would raise that number to a shocking 64 per cent.

If water use is determined by the UCP government and the Alberta Energy Regulator — and not by a panel independent of political interference — water supplies to Albertans are at a critical risk, he said.

Dr. Urquhart also cited the 1969 Master Agreement on Apportionment (MAA), which requires that Alberta direct 50 per cent of the natural flow of its rivers to Saskatchewan — something that would be directly affected by increased coal mining. The MAA also demands a maximum of 1 microgram of selenium per litre of water. But coal companies like Benga, which is behind the Grassy Mountain project, are seeking a selenium cap that’s 15 times higher.

We have an obligation to others when it comes to resources like water, Dr. Urquhart said, and that means ensuring downstream users of water have both an adequate quantity and quality of water.

Every land decision is a water decision

Alberta conservationist Kevin Van Tighem spoke about the critical role of the Eastern Slopes as the province’s most important water reservoir.  

While glacial water is stored underground and released into streams when flows are low, coal mining puts this ecology at risk by destroying the forests that store water. Already undersupplied streams then become the source of water for coal mines, which in turn release selenium, cadmium, and other effluents back into the same streams. 

It has been clear since as far back as the 1880s that the water from the Eastern Slopes had to be protected from industry, Mr. Van Tighem said. That’s why the federal government established Forest Reserves that could not be developed by industry, to ensure that adequate water could reach the drier Prairies.

The 1976 Coal Policy’s decision to limit mining in ecologically sensitive areas was similarly driven by a concern about water security, he added. But even though that policy has now been reinstated, those areas remain public land and “open for business.”

Every land use decision is a water decision, Mr. Van Tighem said, and headwater landscapes must be preserved as places that produce water — not places where we extract resources at the expense of water.

Meaningful consultation needed

So what should Albertans look for in a new coal policy? Drew Yewchuck, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Clinic, told the townhall that what is needed is an actual law — not just policy. 

A law would make it much more difficult for the government to reverse course, like it did with the 1976 Coal Policy, he said.

Albertans also need to demand a fair, impartial, and open consultation process and ensure licensing approvals have no conflict of interest and are governed by public hearings, Mr. Yewchuck added. 

Take action

The Council of Canadians Edmonton Chapter will continue to expose the devil in the details of the UCP government’s plans to facilitate new coal mining, which could have potentially catastrophic impacts on water and the life depending on it. 

The recent provincial announcements cancelling leases and “re-instating” a revised 1976 Coal Policy have provided little to no assurance that there will be any real protection. Coal mining continues and public consultation processes are uncertain. 

Now is the time to increase pressure to ensure the protection is complete and not just smoke and mirrors. Click here to join us in demanding that the Alberta government halt coal exploration

Click here to watch the recording from the Alberta-wide townhall on February 10, 2021, called Protect Our Water and Say No to Coal.