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Alberta scientists urge adoption of bill that would protect against coal mining

EDMONTON — Scientists from the University of Alberta want the provincial government to rethink its plans to expand coal-mining in the Rocky Mountains.
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Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley announces proposed new legislation to protect Alberta's mountains and watershed from coal mining at a news conference in Calgary on Monday, March 15, 2021. A group of 35 scientists from the University of Alberta are urging the provincial government to rethink its plans for expanding coal-mining in the Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — Scientists from the University of Alberta want the provincial government to rethink its plans to expand coal-mining in the Rocky Mountains.

In an open letter to all members of the United Conservative caucus, 35 members of the university's biology department have asked the government to support a private member's bill from Opposition Leader Rachel Notley that they say would protect the mountains and their eastern slopes. 

"There is no reliable method to stop leaching of hazardous waste produced by surface coal mining into groundwater where, inevitably, it will pollute precious watersheds we all depend on that are already under severe stress," says the letter.

It asks members of the legislature to consider Notley's proposed legislation. The bill has been approved for debate by a legislature committee, but will die on the order paper unless all members agree to move it further up. 

The law is needed to at least slow development down, said Shelagh Campbell, the biologist who started the letter. 

"The bill at least has a chance of getting these issues more out in the open," she said. 

"A lot of Albertans feel right now pretty desperate in terms of the tools we have at our disposal to slow down the mass destruction that's being visited on us."

Expanded open-pit coal mining in the Rockies has been controversial since the government announced last spring that it was revoking environmental protection for the land. 

That policy has since been restored, but drilling and road-building on leases sold in the interim are going ahead.

The provincial government originally gathered no public input before removing the measures that protected the landscape, but it has since opened an online survey and appointed a panel to hear from people.

The survey closed Monday. 

"The Coal Policy Committee is currently reviewing and analyzing the survey results and will provide an update in the near future," said Alberta Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Henshaw. "The results will also serve as a road map for the next steps in the coal policy engagement process."

The panel process has been widely criticized after its terms of reference made it clear its five members won't be allowed to hear concerns about water or land use — the two issues most Albertans are concerned about. 

Energy Minister Sonya Savage said that the university professors should consider making their points to the panel.

"We would strongly encourage them to participate in the coal policy consultations which are currently ongoing," she said in an email.  

Campbell said she's received no substantive responses yet to the letter. She said the stakes involved in coal-mining are too high to gamble with.  

"When they tell us that we can keep this or that out (of the water) and make it safe, it's not true. They don't know that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2021.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

The Canadian Press