More southern Alberta communities voice concern over province's plans to expand coal

·3 min read
More southern Alberta communities voice concern over province's plans to expand coal

Concern over the Alberta government's decision to drop a coal policy that has protected the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains for decades is growing among area communities.

"We are definitely not in favour of it," said Kathie Wight, mayor of Longview, a community of 334 that looks out on the rangelands and mountains of the province's southwest. "More public consultation needs to be taken into consideration."

Wight, at council's direction, is drafting a letter to the United Conservative government asking it to rethink its decision to revoke the 1976 policy that prevented open-pit coal mines in a large stretch of the Rockies where rivers that serve all of southern Alberta have their headwaters.

After the unexpected cancellation of the policy last May, the province has sold 1.4 million hectares of coal exploration leases along the foothills and mountaintops of the eastern slopes.

Some municipal officials, along with many environmental groups, say they are worried about selenium from any mines that may be developed, as well as the permanent loss of some of the province's best-loved wild landscapes.

"Once you start digging out a mountain, you can't replace it," Wight said. "Polluting the water, that's not ever good."

Wight and her council represent the latest community to voice opposition to the provincial government's plan. At least six cities, towns and municipal districts in southwest Alberta have expressed concern about the decision and the lack of consultation.

Lethbridge — a city of 128,000 — did so last week.

"Economic benefits must be considered together with risks to the environment (and) risks to the health of those living downstream," said a Jan. 14 letter from city council to Environment Minister Jason Nixon.

Craig Snodgrass, mayor of High River, has also sent a letter of concern to the province. A second letter expressing the same sentiments will be discussed at an upcoming council meeting.

Nearby Nanton has also done so. So has Foothills County.

Ranchlands County has joined a legal action trying to convince a judge to force the government to rethink its decision.

Others, such as Black Diamond and Clearwater County, plan to discuss the issue at upcoming meetings after hearing concerns from residents.

"We're in the gathering information stage," said Jim Duncan of Clearwater County, where the local member of the legislature is Nixon.

"Our inboxes are lit up, that's for sure. There are residents voicing concern."

The Municipality of Crowsnest Pass, which sits in the southwest corner of the province where coal has been mined for generations, is a strong supporter of the one mine now before an environmental review. The Grassy Mountain project by Benga Mining is planned for a site that has seen previous mines and is considered crucial to the town's economic future.

Mayor Blair Painter said council hasn't considered larger issues around coal.

"Council has not discussed the coal policy changes," he said.

The communities now protesting Alberta's right-of-centre government are considered conservative bedrock.

With one exception, every seat south and west of Calgary went to the United Conservatives in the 2019 election. Even when the New Democrats formed government from 2015-19, they only managed to win three seats south of Edmonton and outside Calgary.

Still, Wight warned that her council and the residents they represent aren't happy with the way the UCP has handled the issue.

"They need to do things differently," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2021.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press