If the Grassy Mountain mine is approved to go head, the iconic face and region of Canada’s Rockies could be permanently scarred.
Open-pit coal mining would rip open the mountains and threatens irreparable harm to the water, wildlife, peoples, and ecosystems of the Eastern Slopes—and the entire southern prairies. This would be a dangerous and irreversible setback that we simply cannot afford.
Where does Grassy Mountain currently stand?
Grassy Mountain, located 7 km north of the town of Blairmore in the Crowsnest Pass region of Alberta, is a proposed open-pit mine that would cover an area of 2,800 hectares (28 square kilometres) on previously mined as well as new, undisturbed land.
Operated by the Australian-owned company Benga Mining Limited, a subsidiary of Riversdale Resources, it would produce metallurgical coal for steel manufacturing. Benga claims the mine would produce 93 million tonnes of export-ready coal over its 23-year lifespan.
The company began its efforts to re-open and expand the Grassy Mountain Mine in 2013 when it acquired all the coal leases in the area. The project’s lands are classified under Category 4 of the Alberta Coal Policy—which means the company is unaffected by the recent decision from the Alberta government to temporarily pause exploration projects in Category 2.
Grassy Mountain is currently undergoing an assessment by a joint federal-provincial review panel, which was established in August 2018 as a result of the mine’s size and impact. That panel’s report is due to Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson by no later than June 18, 2021. The Minister will then have 150 days to either approve or reject the project, based on his assessment of the possible adverse environmental effects.
Minister Wilkinson’s decision will be of critical importance. Approving Grassy Mountain would set the tone for Canada’s approach to coal mining in the Eastern Slopes, and open the floodgates for more open-pit mining to take place in the Rockies.
The project poses wide-ranging risks and there’s been strong opposition from many quarters: grassroots First Nations groups, landowners, ranchers, recreational and tourism companies, environmental groups,municipalities, and concerned citizens.
Threats to water
There are numerous lakes and rivers at the site of Grassy Mountain that supply the Oldman River Basin. Waters from the Oldman flow into the Saskatchewan River Basin, and then all the way to Hudson Bay. This water is necessary for irrigation, ranching, hydro-electricity, ecosystem support, and maintenance of healthy aquatic systems, and it's a source of drinking water for millions of people who live in this region.
There are serious concerns that Grassy Mountain and other mining projects could poison this water. Waste rock piles from open-pit mining contain selenium, arsenic, nitrates, and other pollutants. Exposed to the weather, these elements make their way into the surrounding air and water.
Selenium is of special concern. Water with elevated selenium levels is particularly dangerous to fish and aquatic life. In humans, long-term exposure to high levels of selenium (through drinking water, for example) is known to cause serious health problems. Samples taken from the Crowsnest River and Gold Creek in 2013 and 2014 showed that selenium levels already exceeded guidelines in both waterways.
Grassy Mountain’s water requirements could also jeopardize existing provincial and interprovincial agreements related to water and land use.
Alberta has put in place a provincial land use framework intended to minimize industrial impacts in the area and protect its headwaters and wildlife diversity. On the interprovincial level, it has signed an agreement with Saskatchewan and Manitoba to ensure collaboration on shared, transboundary waters. These agreements are poised to be ignored or overridden in Alberta’s haste to open the door to open-pit mining.
Consultation with First Nations
Some First Nations community members have also raised concerns about Grassy Mountain’s impact on their Treaty rights and ways of life.
The project is located in the heart of land that the Blackfoot Nations have lived in and cared for, generation after generation. Mining activity could adversely impact the ability of those nations to hunt, fish, trap, and gather medicinal and ceremonial plants on their ancestral lands, leading to the loss of livelihoods, traditional ways of life, and culture.
While the company behind Grassy Mountain has boasted about receiving support from the leadership of First Nations in the area, many members of those nations have been vocal critics of the project.
“There was some consultation that was done, but it was on a government to government relationship,” Adam North Peigan of Piikani Nation recently told The Lethbridge Herald. “So they came in and met with our leadership, and there was very little consultation with the grassroots community members.”
Latasha Calf Robe, a member of the Kainai nation and co-lead of the Niitsitapi Water Protectors, initiated a petition that was signed by more than 18,000 Canadians and tabled in the House of Commons in March, slamming the province for violating First Nations rights and asking the federal government to step in.
The petition called on the federal government to initiate a Regional Assessment to review the overall effects of expanded coal mining in southwestern Alberta—and to delay any decision on Grassy Mountain until those cumulative effects have been considered. Minister Wilkinson will announce his decision about moving forward with that assessment by June 18, 2021.
Threats to health and at-risk species
As with other proposed mining projects in the area, Grassy Mountain is also a threat to a wide variety of plant and animal life.
By Benga Mining’s own admission, there are sixty species at varying levels of risk on or near the project. Grizzly bears, westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout, whitebark pine, and limber pine are species of particular concern.
Coal mining and wind erosion of waste rock piles also 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 Grassy Mountain, also develop black lung.
The Alberta government and other proponents of Grassy Mountain maintain that the project will result in a significant number of well-paying jobs. But these jobs may come with a high cost. Miners and residents could breathe air polluted by coal dust for decades.
This is an unacceptable exploitation of miners’ bodies and lives. There is a need for good, safe, and well-paying jobs in this region, but it is also possible to create new jobs that do not entail people dying from an incurable and avoidable disease. It’s a matter of political will and effort.
Grassy Mountain approval could have a cascading effect
The approval of Grassy Mountain would send the message that Canada is willing to risk the health of people, animals, plants, water, and land; threaten livelihoods; violate Indigenous Treaty rights and ways of life; and allow resource-sharing agreements to be ignored.
It would open the proverbial Pandora’s Box—signaling to other companies that the province and federal government will not stand in the way of plans to blow up mountains and extract resources. In fact, global investors have been carefully watching the approval process for Grassy Mountain—hoping that its success in reviving open-pit mining will pave the way for others to move in as well.
The damage that could be caused by Grassy Mountain is significant—and it would be only multiplied if any of the other mining projects slated in the area also move ahead.
We are at a critical juncture. What future do we want for our children and our land? When we—and our children, and our children’s children—lift up eyes to these hills, what will we see? The majestic beauty of these life-giving mountains, or a marred reminder of what we have lost?