Alberta's plan to allow for open-pit coal mining in the Rocky Mountains could be a serious threat to Saskatchewan's water supply, says the director of the Global Water Futures Project at the University of Saskatchewan.
"For a water scientist to see this happening, it's just an abomination to have these types of developments suggested in the headwaters of the rivers that supply drinking water and the economy for most of Saskatchewan," John Pomeroy told CBC's Blue Sky.
Last spring, the Alberta government revoked a 1976 policy that blocked open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes and peaks of the Rockies.
The coal policy had protected the Rocky Mountains for more than four decades. Now, more than 1.4 million hectares is available for exploration.
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The Grassy Mountain Coal Project is the closest to becoming reality, as it's currently before the Alberta Environmental Regulator.
If approved, the open pit mine would be about seven kilometres north of Blairmore, Alta., producing up to 4.5 million tonnes of coal annually for 25 years.
It would create nearly 400 full-time jobs, but many fear it could pollute nearby waters affecting millions downstream, destroy endangered species' habitats, and damage cattle-grazing areas — including in the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan's runoff water only provides one per cent of the stream flow to Lake Diefenbaker, according to Pomeroy.
"Ninety-nine per cent is coming from Alberta from upstream, and these are the headwaters of the rivers that are proposed to have these developments or changes in water quantity and changes in water quality," Pomeroy said.
Pomeroy says policies like this should be referred to the Prairie Provinces Water Board, adding the federal government also has a role to play in future developments of this sort.
Opposition urges Sask. government to act
NDP environment critic Erika Ritchie has raised similar concerns to Saskatchewan's Environment Minister Warren Kaeding.
She said they have a responsibility to put pressure on Alberta to restore the protections against coal mining and to protect its water sources.
"People in Saskatchewan are very concerned that opening the door to open-pit coal mining in the Rockies is opening the door to serious contamination of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers," Ritchie said in a statement.
"By repealing protections against coal mining that have been in place since 1976, the UCP government in Alberta is running the risk of polluting the major sources of Saskatchewan's agricultural and drinking water supplies."
Base approvals on assessments, not ideology: minister
In a statement, Minister Kaeding said the Saskatchewan government takes water quality and water security seriously.
He says Saskatchewan takes the position that "project approvals should be based on extensive environmental assessment processes driven by scientific evidence and careful regulatory scrutiny, not ideological opposition to resource development."
"In regards to the development of proposed projects in other jurisdictions, projects across Canada are regulated by numerous provincial and federal agencies and subject to comprehensive environmental assessments," Kaeding said.
"We expect proponents of any project to meet the rigorous standards that exist to protect the environment."
Kenney defends Rockies coal policy
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has defended the policy.
"No regulator, no government is going to allow a mine of any kind, or a forestry project, or a ranching project, that's going to jeopardize the headwaters off the eastern slopes," Kenney said Wednesday on Edmonton radio station CHED.
"You can't get a mine anywhere in this province without an exhaustive environmental review based on provincial and/or federal law. That involves widespread consultation."
Kenney suggested the coal-mining debate is being fuelled, at least partly, by the condescension of city-dwellers.
"There's thousands of Alberta families who put food on the table because of the mining industry. I don't think those of us who live in the city should look down on those folks."
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