Alberta ranchers fear loss of grazing lands due to proposed coal mine

Public use of previously protected lands and water quality of Oldman River threatened after Alberta rescinds 44-year-old coal policy, paving way for Grassy Mountain Coal Project


Laura Laing can’t imagine how her family would run their cow-calf operation without their Mount Livingstone grazing allotment.

These native grasslands, nestled among the hills and peaks, with Cabin Ridge Mountain rising above the pastures, support a large percentage of the Plateau Cattle Company herd from early June to the beginning of October.

“Year after year, it’s been our best-producing pasture,” said Laing, who values the benefits of the native grass, clean water and open spaces in this area for her family’s herd.

This third-generation ranch west of Nanton, Alta., like many others in southwestern Alberta, relies on being able to graze its cattle in the Mount Livingstone Range. This breathtaking landscape has been vital to numerous beef operations for decades, and it’s unfathomable to Laing that this place could soon be changed beyond recognition.

But this could be a devastating reality for many ranchers on the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains if a proposed open-pit coal mine is given the green light this fall. This is becoming more likely due to a recent change in a 44-year-old policy on coal mining in Alberta.

“You really have to fight to stay in this industry,” Laing said. “We try not to get overly emotional about it because that makes you quite reactive…We say to ourselves, ‘how could this even be a thing?’ It’s disastrous to the landscape.”

On June 1, the province of Alberta quietly revoked the Coal Policy, which had previously restricted coal mining exploration and development in areas considered environmentally sensitive. Enacted in 1976, this legislation had regulated coal mining over four categories of land. While former Category 1 lands in the Rockies are to remain protected, the provincial government stated, the other three categories are now open for coal development. The change came without a public consultation period.

The lifting of restrictions on Category 2 lands, covering 1.4 million hectares of land in the foothills and Rockies deemed moderately to highly environmentally sensitive, including the Mount Livingstone Range, is especially troubling to those who rely on these lands to pasture cattle. Until now, open-pit mines had been prohibited on Category 2 lands, and underground mines were only allowed if surface impacts were considered acceptable for the environment.

This paves the way for the approval of the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, just north of Blairmore, Alta. Australia’s Benga Mining Limited plans to develop an open-pit metallurgical coal mine with a production capacity of up to 4.5 million tonnes of coal per year, with a lifespan of 25 years. Benga has sought provincial and federal approval for this mine since 2014, and a public hearing is scheduled to start in October.

“They opened up a huge swath of land that historically Albertans have said needs to remain in its natural state and be available to multiple users, to now be available for what we call mountaintop removal mining,” said Bobbi Lambright, secretary of the Livingstone Landowners Group.

This type of mining, often used for surface mines in the Appalachian Mountains of the southeastern U.S., requires the removal of all vegetation and top soil, then explosives are used to blast all the rock above the coal seam to expose it. Waste rock is moved into massive piles, and the blasting is known to release toxic elements from the rock into the environment.

For more information, read this article on The Narwhal.

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