January 25th, 2022

Letter: First, they come for the coal…

By Letter to the Editor on December 11, 2020.

Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.

A 19th century Quebec folk song echoes the failure to protect the Eastern Slopes:

“They gave away the forest, they gave away the land.

They gave away the rivers, they gave away the sand.

They gave away the silver, they gave away the gold.

They would have given away the air, but the air they couldn’t hold.”

Substitute coal for gold and a burgeoning Alberta tragedy unfolds.

Behind the scenes, quietly, in the halls of power, with active lobbyists for Australian coal companies and compliant politicians in the UCP government there are moves afoot to change, irrevocably, the Eastern Slopes of Alberta.

The first step was to rescind the Coal Policy, a forward-thinking governance to restrict coal development to a few places and protect the rest of the Eastern Slopes. Albertans strongly agreed with the policy then and still do, because of higher watershed, biodiversity, aesthetic and recreational values. Throwing the door open to coal exploration has created a coal-rush, with three large Australian-owned coal mining companies racing to submit applications and achieve regulatory approval for six extensive mountain-top removal coal mines, just in southwestern Alberta.

Now, we know mountain-top coal strip mines disrupt the natural collection, storage and release of water to downstream trout, cities and agriculture. Changes in the timing, amount and quality of water have negative implications for native trout, the gold seal indicator of healthy watersheds. Already, two native species, Westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout have declined to the point they have been designated as “threatened”. New mines will tip them over the edge, as surely as mountain tops are tipped into the stream valleys these trout inhabit.

Various elements, locked into the overburden until released by mining include selenium, arsenic, uranium, cobalt, chromium and mercury. This is a witch’s brew of potential contaminants. The Elk Valley, a few kilometers west in BC has seen drinking water impacted by mining, native cutthroat trout populations decimated and condemnation from Montana for harming water quality in a shared river.

The final indignity is coal mining requires water, lots of it, to wash coal to remove impurities. This must be what coal proponents, including the crop of current UCP politicians mean when they talk of “clean coal.” The amount of water required to wash coal for the mines anticipated in the Crowsnest and Oldman watersheds is something on the order of 3.0 billion liters per year. You could fill upwards of 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools with that volume of water. That’s enough water for 12,500 Alberta households.

Most disturbing is most of this water will be lost to both evaporation and attached to coal particles on the way to a BC port. It is water irretrievably lost from the system and unavailable for downstream ecological, economic and social uses.

The streams coal companies may want to tap are likely small headwater creeks, currently ungauged. That means stream flows are, at best, estimates. Detailed instream flow need assessments would be prudent to know how much water is there and the amount required to satisfy the ecological needs of trout species. It may be evident already that any perceived stream flow surpluses are illusionary. Dewatering these streams for coal mines would be the removal of critical habitat, a prohibition under Federal law.

Coal companies are now on a search for water, and to get the volumes required means dipping into a diminishing supply in southern Alberta. Political intervention in water allocation to aid Australian coal companies runs a very real risk of affecting trout populations, downstream water drinkers, established industry, agriculture and our commitment to meeting interprovincial flow requirements. Unallocated, or surplus water exists only on paper. It currently is part of river flow, keeping trout alive, and maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

First, the coal companies come for the coal and then, they want to drain the streams of the East Slopes for coal processing. Is this the best use of our limited and precious water, to launder coal?

Decisions on water allocation have to be made in the public interest, what’s best for Albertans – not what’s best for Australian coal companies.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, in the Great Gatsby:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

On reflection you might have thought Fitzgerald was observing the decisions of the UCP government related to coal development.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a downstream water drinker

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