“Living in Alberta is a complicated balance of honouring the land, exploiting the land, protecting the land.”
– Bringing Coal Back, CBC News
In 1976, the Lougheed government adopted a coal policy that stated: "No development will be permitted unless the government is satisfied that it may proceed without irreparable harm to the environment." This policy set out four categories which restricted development in three large areas of the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies.
Categories 1, 2 and 3 were the subject of the current government's rescinding order last May. Category 4, on the other hand, was exempt from the 1976 policy, by and large because it encompassed areas where strip mining was active or already existed. These areas were mainly in the Hinton – Grande Cache region with a small area of Category 4 land in the Crowsnest Pass. This includes the Grassy Mountain site, a strip mine abandoned in the 1950s when reclamation was not required. A proposal to reopen this abandoned mine is presently under review by a federal-provincial review panel.
The Grassy Mountain site is approximately 10 kilometres north of Blairmore. Grassy Mountain is a transitional rocky ridge between the continental divide and the foothills. The proposed location for the loadout facility is approximately three kilometres from my front door and the mine site is about 10 kilometres north of that. From one point on the golf course, you can see the black face of the former strip mine on the horizon to the north.
Riversdale Resources, the proponent for Grassy Mountain, has been working on exploration and planning for seven years now and just concluded public hearings before the federal-provincial review board. Riversdale has been an excellent corporate citizen, sponsoring charity events and hosting open houses to inform the public of its plans and the results of consultant studies. It recently spent over $35 million to refurbish the Crowsnest golf course, including building a new clubhouse and access road.
The consultant reports and consultations have been extensive and have received the support of neighbouring Pincher Creek and the Piikani Nation at Brocket. As Piikani Chief Stanley Grier stated in a 2019 letter of support for the project, the Nation hopes the project “will reduce the unemployment rate, put our highly skilled members to work, increase the quality of life on reserve and create a brighter future for generations to come.”
Alberta has a long history of coal mining. Lethbridge, Drumheller, Nordegg and the Crowsnest Pass owe their early development to coal mining but that was thermal coal for burning in our homes and for producing electricity. More recently Hinton, Grande Cache and now the Grassy Mountain mines are for metallurgical coal.
Metallurgical coal, a low sulphur, high temperature burning coal used in steel production, mostly in the Far East, is now a major export from areas like Hinton, Grande Cache and particularly in southeastern British Columbia. Currently our neighbouring province exports $6.7 billion worth of metallurgical coal mostly from the Teck mines just across the border from Grassy Mountain.
Reclamation is certainly a concern. Back in the 1950s, reclamation was not a condition of abandonment of a mine. Grassy Mountain is not a pristine area but rather an ugly black scar on the face of the mountain. One only needs to drive west on Highway 16 north of Wabamun to observe the reclamation of the open pit mines or south of Hinton to observe the mountain sheep grazing on lands which were once an open pit mine. Drive through the Crowsnest Pass to Sparwood and see where once the dirty little towns of Michel and Natal are now pasture land for elk and the hillsides are all grassed.
Energy production is a mainstay of Alberta’s economy. We can balance economy with environmental restrictions.
Ken Allred is a former St. Albert Alderman and MLA.