Singer-songwriter Corb Lund and 30 Alberta landowners hold coal mining protest concert
Event held in opposition to UCP plans to open-pit coal mining in eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains
Many rural landowners in southwestern Alberta aren't budging from their opposition to the provincial government's plan to allow open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, with 30 landowners and country music star Corb Lund gathering Wednesday for a protest concert.
The landowners, all wearing cowboy hats and boots, rode on horseback onto the Rocking P ranch in the Livingstone River Valley near Cabin Ridge, the site of a proposed coal mine north of Coleman, for what was billed as a "Tribute to the Mountains Concert."
The United Conservative Party government has faced criticism — and legal challenges — from some landowners, environmental groups, municipalities and First Nations since May 2020, when it announced it was rescinding the province's long-standing coal policy brought in under former premier Peter Lougheed in 1976.
Lund, a sixth-generation southern Albertan, has been an outspoken opponent of the United Conservative Party's government's plan to allow open-pit coal mines in the region and the concert took on more of the feel of a rally.
"We're a couple of hours south of here in the foothills, but it's the same story … many generations on the land," Lund said.
"I don't speak out publicly about a lot of issues, but this is so big and so egregious that I just didn't think it could be left alone."
Lund turned and pointed to a flat mountaintop behind him.
"That ridge up there is called Cabin Ridge and that's where the coal mine's going to be if it goes through. They're going to take that top off the whole ridge and probably ruin these rivers. This whole area will be a disaster," he said.
Lund called this week on the UCP government to hold a referendum on coal mining.
Lund choked back tears as he recalled the emotion he feels every time he drives home after being on tour.
"Everything changes for me and it gets real magical," he said.
"This is sacred country and that's why I'm doing it…. I don't like doing it, but the government and the coal companies have forced me to."
Peggy Lund, who still lives on the family ranch, shares her son's concerns about the proposed mines.
"I just think what's proposed and what's going on here is just a decimation and just a horrible thing," she said. "This will make a huge footprint, a negative footprint on the area. It comes with a lot of baggage."
Mac Blades' family has owned the property where the Wednesday event was held for 100 years. He remains hopeful that public pressure will put an end to any plan of coal mines on the eastern slopes.
Blades said it's already painful imagining how the view would change.
"I don't think I could come back and look at it. It would be devastating. I can't imagine it really. It would just destroy everything."
Coal mining in Alberta's foothills and mountains has been controversial ever since the United Conservative government revoked a policy in May 2020 that had protected the land since 1976.
Tens of thousands of hectares have been leased for exploration, drawing protests from First Nations, municipalities and many thousands of Albertans.
That outcry caused the government to restore the policy, pause new sales and suspend exploration work on the most sensitive land — although work continues elsewhere.
It also struck a panel to gather input on how Albertans feel about coal mining in the postcard-perfect landscape. It is expected to report in November.
The closest coal project to becoming reality currently before the Alberta Environmental Regulator (AER) is Grassy Mountain. The open pit mine, which would be located roughly seven kilometres north of Blairmore, could produce an estimated 4.5 million tonnes of coal annually over 23 years.
It would create nearly 400 full-time jobs, but some fear it could pollute nearby waters affecting millions downstream, destroy endangered species' habitats, and damage cattle-grazing areas.
A lengthy new study released earlier this week — commissioned by the Livingstone Landowners Group and presented to the province's coal consultation committee — concluded new coal mines in Alberta's Rocky Mountain foothills would create more environmental problems than economic benefits.
The report from the Alces Group, an ecological consulting firm, says current methods to remove toxins such as selenium from water flowing over mine sites are unproven over long periods of time and large areas. It says new mines would increase stress on water supplies, especially as southern Alberta's population grows and climate change alters rain and snow patterns.
If all eight mines under consideration in the Oldman River watershed go ahead, they could account for 40 per cent of the flow of those streams during the summer, when flows are lowest, the report concludes. The report notes water use for agriculture and residences is already forecast to increase 46 per cent between 2006 and 2030, even as climate change shifts the timing and amount of precipitation.
As well, watersheds in northern Alberta affected by old coal mines remain contaminated by selenium decades after the end of mining and start of remediation, the report says.
But Guy Gilron, an environmental consultant who has presented material to the coal consultation committee on behalf of one of the mining companies, said modern mines use a variety of methods in combination to control selenium, not just those considered in the Alces report.
Also this week, the federal government on Wednesday announced it would step in to do an environmental review of any new coal project that could possibly release the contaminant selenium. The decision will affect any proposals that emerge from eight steelmaking coal exploration projects in the foothills.
Lund had been waiting for the announcement.
"It sounds like excellent news. It feels like the tide's turning a little bit, which is good because it's been a battle," he said.
"If it makes it harder and more stringent for the mines to get started… That's a great thing."
With files from Leah Hennel