Ranchers living along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in southern Alberta are launching their own study looking at potential impacts of air quality should coal companies be allowed to develop in the area.
Laura Laing and John Smith run Plateau Cattle Co. They worry their third-generation ranch would be compromised if coal companies were allowed to mine along the Rockies.
“We have been told to trust the process, but when we looked into the processes and worked with experts, they say there’s a lot of major gaps and voids in the system and those scare us,” Laing said.
The couple discovered there is very little evidence of potential impacts to vulnerable regions across the province. The study is being funded by the Pekisko Group, a group of ranchers and farmers between the Highwood and Oldman rivers in southwestern Alberta.
“There needs to be this type of forethought if we’re going to have these kinds of resource development, this needs to happen,” Laing said.
The provincial government cancelled a decades-old coal policy in 2020. After overwhelming objection from Albertans, they restored it.
On Monday, Energy Minister Sonya Savage appointed an independent committee to conduct public consultation.
“I think this is the job of government. Before they make major policy changes, they should be conducting these kinds of studies on water and air and what needs to be done,” Smith said.
“I don’t think this is our job, but will do it.”
They have hired senior toxicologist Mandy Olsgard.
“If you have a mine site, you might have open pits that you’re mining out of. You will have waste rock piles and you will have conveyor belts and all of these are sources of dust emissions,” Olsgard said.
“But there will also be processing facilities that can release gaseous compounds like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen.”
Olsgard used to work with the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). She said she will assess possible dust and gas emissions from mining activity, because the AER doesn’t track that kind of evidence.
“If a coal mining company put in an application, there’s no data analytics program that would fit into that to say, ‘Here’s a level of development, here’s the stressors and the potential impacts right now. Could we put mine on top of that and it would be safely developed?’ That doesn’t exist,” Olsgard said.
“We could actually be setting the stage for cumulative assessments supporting the regulator because they don’t have this in place.”
The AER didn’t respond to request for comment.
Laing and Smith are working collaboratively with other concerned Albertans.
The Livingstone Landowners Group is conducting a separate study on water quality and quantity. Rancher John Lawson said climate change and drought are already threatening the water.
“We can’t just keep blindly taking more out of the river and releasing more contaminants into them,” Lawson said. “We don’t have the information we need for these kinds of projects to go ahead here. So we have to find it.”
The worry is, selenium, from mined waste rock could poison the waters downstream. No coal company has successfully developed a system to completely remove the contaminant.
“They have proposals and promises that are sort of general and say, ‘Well if that doesn’t work, we will fix it and make it better and go from there.’ Those aren’t concrete assurances that anyone should have to rely on,” Lawson said.
They have recruited, Brad Stelfox, the founder of an environmental scientists and ecologists team, ALCES, to look at potential risks.
“Our goal will be to do ‘what if’ scenarios. What if these projects, which would produce 20 million metric tonnes of coal per year, what would be the consequences of those? Hopefully that kind of knowledge is going to contribute to a discussion right now that has a lot of uncertainty,” Stelfox said.
“You got to get past the emotional stuff and look at the science.”
Mining operations also need massive amounts of water to produce coal.
“We’ve seen more and more water demand in agriculture and irrigated crops but also for the cattle sector so we are taking more water out of those systems and now if we put another land use in the headwaters, coal, we may find ourselves in a tremendous position of scarcity,” Stelfox said.
The energy ministry’s office said the two groups are welcome to share the findings of the research to the committee. Both studies will be completed by the summer of 2021.
Global News reached out to the Coal Association of Canada, but nobody returned the request for comment.