Because a River Runs Through It: Grassy Mountain Coal Mine Threatens Alberta Fisheries

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As you make your way west off the highway toward the Rocky Mountains on a dusty, well used road, the towering escarpment and near vertical rock faces look impenetrable to the naked eye. A seemingly gapless expanse of granite nears closer through the windshield with every bump in the dirt. You wind your way through a group of trees, temporarily blocking your view of the mountainside ahead and the road becomes rockier as you round the final bend. Suddenly, almost without warning, you find yourself running parallel with the pristine, jaw-dropping beauty of a wild, mountain stream, carving its way through the canyon of rock in the same path it has for millennia. This is the Oldman River.

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It is this very river, as well as the Crowsnest and Livingstone that are threatened by the proposed Grassy Mountain Coal Project; a project that will literally blow the top off several mountains at the headwaters of these arterial streams. Spearheaded by Benga Mining Ltd., a subsidiary of Australian coal company Riversdale Resources, the proposed mine is seemingly being fast-tracked by the Alberta government as a way to counter the struggling oil and gas industry the province has used as a crutch for much longer than it should have. At full production, Grassy Mountain will be one of the largest single sites for sources of steel making coal to be developed in the past few decades using modern mining technology.

The mine, if permitted, will degrade both the water quality and the water quantity in the watersheds that flow through the proposed project. A watershed that is a blue-ribbon home to populations of native and vulnerable bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, not to mention the source of drinking water for close to a million people. Waste rock from coal mining releases selenium for decades, and despite assurances from the mine developers, no one has ever successfully remedied that situation. The tailing ponds created are a big concern, as it is well documented that all of these impoundments leak, some of them fail. When they do fail, they spill huge amounts of waste into downstream waterways, in this case, the Oldman Reservoir. Selenium is responsible for destroying fisheries in many locations throughout Canada and the United States and is the likely culprit in the well-documented demise of a world class trout fishery that is the Elk River, flowing through neighboring Fernie, British Columbia. We have a real-time case study at work just across the provincial border with signs that should be as deafeningly apparent as a fire alarm at 3am. There is no reason to believe a new mine in a similar area can deliver a different result.

For nearby towns in the Crowsnest Pass, the mine will deliver a lethal blow to an economy that has been rebranding itself over several years with an emphasis on natural beauty, tourism and outdoor pursuits such as fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking and hunting. A coal mine effectively closes the door to these and many other economic opportunities the area has worked tirelessly on creating. Having a mine means no tourist industry and no quality-of-life in-migration. Contrary to what politicians will have you believe, coal mines cause, they don’t diminish, poor living conditions. The lure of promising job opportunities is near-sighted and reckless, as the entire area will undergo what many experts describe as a slow-moving natural disaster.

We’ve seen this story play out several times over the years, most recently in Alaska with the well-known Pebble Mine. The tagline for Pebble was ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Mine’ and I truly believe the same can be said for Grassy Mountain. As a community, we have to look forward, not backward, to embrace a prosperous future. We do not need nor will we benefit, long term, from this proposed coal mine. The fight is on, right now, and it’s not a battle easily won by the general public, but, in my opinion, it’s a fight that’s certainly worth rolling up your sleeves for.

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Trevor McDavid

I live in rural Southern Alberta, where the edge of the prairie meets the foot of Canada’s awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains. I grew up here, and after a quite a few years spent abroad, I eventually made my way back to my roots to realign myself with the community that raised me.

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