The Alberta government’s pledge to reinstate a ban on open-pit coal mining in a large section of the Rocky Mountains and foothills has alleviated some concern among Saskatchewan environmental groups.
The South Saskatchewan River receives 80 to 90 per cent of its water from runoff in the Rockies, according to Bob Halliday, board chair of Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin.
“When you turn on a tap in Saskatoon, you’re actually drinking mountain water,” said Halliday, who is also a water resources consulting engineer.
On Monday, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said the province would reinstate the 1976 coal policy that was revoked last spring. The decades-old measures blocked surface coal mines in roughly 1.4 million hectares of land.
Savage said the government viewed the policy as obsolete, noting it predated modern understanding of climate change. The change happened quietly without public consultation.
“We should’ve done better and we admit that we didn’t get this one right,” Savage said Monday.
Savage said details regarding a future public consultation will be unveiled in the coming weeks. Halliday said there’s a risk that consultation could remain localized to areas near the eastern slopes of the Rockies.
“We do have to be cognizant of the fact that the scope of the consultation should fit the problem, and the problem would include effects downstream,” Halliday said.
Peter Prebble, board member of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, told Global News he was “surprised and delighted” by Monday’s reversal.
His greatest concern specific to Saskatchewan was the potential for selenium contamination. The metalloid can enter water systems through rock piles and tailings piles. High concentrations can harm fish and impact drinking water, he said.
While he welcomed Monday’s announcement, he said “there’s every reason to be concerned that there could be environmental concessions made” for economic considerations.
Two coal exploration projects were approved in what is known as the Category 2 lands after the coal policy was revoked. Savage said the government doesn’t plan to take back approvals that were granted by the Alberta Energy Regulator.
Any coal mine in the region is too many, according to John Pomeroy, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Water Futures research program.
“I don’t understand the point of consulting over whether one would allow such a dangerous industry to proceed at all in the headwaters,” Pomeroy said.
Ninety-nine per cent of the water flowing into Lake Diefenbaker originates in Alberta, he said. The reservoir is the proposed site of a 10-year, $4-billion project to double the irrigable land in Saskatchewan.
Pomeroy wants to see further study of the Saskatchewan River Basin’s uses, including the effects of climate change, how much land can be irrigated and how ecosystems can be maintained.