Coal and Water in Alberta

The Alberta government has decided to open up new mountaintop removal mining coal leases on the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, rescinding Coal Policy protections that have been in place since the 1970s, in a bid to inject funds into an economy that’s struggling from low oil prices and the pandemic.

The latest proposal is the Grassy Mountain project, designed to extract coal for making steel (not generating power). It is located in the Crowsnest Pass of southwestern Alberta, 7 km north of Blairmore. Hancock Prospecting, an Australian company, predict that they will process 4.5 million tonnes of coal per year over the next 25 years.

Proposed Grassy Mountain Coal Mine area (photo via Wikimedia Commons).

The big issue facing this mine? Water.

Studies out of Australia have shown that coal mines use 250 L of freshwater and about 750 L of recycled water per tonne of coal produced. If Grassy Mountain plans to produce 4.5 million tonnes of coal per year, that’s 1.125 billion L of freshwater per year – not even counting the recycled water.

Water is a touchy issue in Alberta, as the province relies on water supplies from the Rockies to support downstream users and ecosystems. Much of the southeastern portion of the province in particular gets very little precipitation (~300 mm/yr), so they really need that water from upstream. The proposed mine is in the Oldman River watershed, which is a sub-basin of the larger South Saskatchewan watershed. New water licenses were suspended in the South Saskatchewan watershed in 2006 because the water is over-allocated: if everyone with a license pulled their maximum allowable amount from the river, there would be nothing left in the river, especially not for environmental flows.

The government contends, however, that the water resources in the Oldman watershed are “underused,” and have suggested new water rules for the Eastern Slopes. Right now, 16% of the water in the area is spoken for, but the government’s new plan would increase that to 30% to support the coal industry. They claim that they would leave 20% of water for “fish and the aquatic environment,” though there is no data to show that this is enough. And downstream users like ranchers and farmers are concerned that there won’t be enough water left for their use. This is a particularly sensitive issue under climate change, as we’re seeing less snow in mountain regions which means less water in snow-fed streams.

Oldman River Dam at high flows (from the Pincher Creek Voice).

The second issue is water quality. Coal mining is known to increase selenium in mining wastewater, and Canada is already in hot water with the US over selenium contamination in southeastern BC’s Elk River Valley, from the Teck coal mine – contamination that crosses the border into Montana and Idaho. High selenium concentrations have been responsible for fish kills downstream of the Teck mining site, despite the fact that the company installed a costly water treatment plant to remove selenium from wastewater. In 2017, Teck was fined $1.4 million after wastewater from a treatment plant leaked into a tributary of the Elk River.

Teck Coal’s Elkview Complex (from Teck Coal website).

The third issue is fish habitat. The Canadian government has designated westslope cutthroat trout as a threatened species, and its habitat includes Gold Creek, a creek that will see a decline in flows of 12% under the Grassy Mountain coal operation. Indeed, Fisheries & Oceans Canada (DFO) has noted that “the … conditions of the Species at Risk Act will likely not be met and…the project has the potential to result in significant adverse effects to westslope cutthroat trout.”

The mine has gone through a federal environmental impact assessment; the oral session of the public hearings for this project are now over and the deadline to file final arguments has passed. A report from the Joint Review Panel is expected by June 18th. The Minister of Environment and Climate Change will have 5 months after receiving the report to issue a decision on the mine.

At this point all Albertans can do is wait and see what the decision will be, and hope their water won’t be compromised for a few million dollars in coal mining.

Note the featured image is a deformed splittail fish from California affected by selenium.

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