Potash mining debate heats up in Saskatchewan town

There is rising tension within Kronau, Sask., over plans by mining giant Vale to build a potash mine in the area.

Economic prosperity pitted against long-term impact in Kronau

Mining giant Vale wants to build a 70-kilometre water pipeline from Katepwa Lake so it can pump about 40 million litres of water a day to its proposed potash mine near Kronau, Sask. (CBC)

There is rising tension within a small Saskatchewan town over plans by mining giant Vale to build a potash mine in the area, with some anticipating an economic boom and others worrying about the mine's environmental and social impacts.

The rural community of Kronau, Sask., with a population of less than 200, sits on a bed of potash that Vale wants to extract.

The Brazilian mining company has already purchased a number of farmers' properties around Kronau, as it prepares to build the multi-billion-dollar mine two kilometres north of the community, says area reeve Erwin Beitel.

Vale plans to host public meetings over the next few months about the Kronau proposal.

A total of three companies are looking to mine potash near Kronau, but Vale is closest to production. It wants to start building the mine within the next few months, in the hopes of starting operations by 2015.

Around 1,500 workers will be needed for construction alone, and another 500 will work on site when the mine is operating.

Roads, rail lines, housing needed

Beitel said roads will need to be paved and a railway line will have to be extended. As well, he said all those workers will need places to live.

"I think we're going to be in the same trouble as Calgary … and Alberta years ago, with not enough housing, not enough anything," Beitel told CBC News.

But when asked if the mine would benefit Kronau in the long term, Beitel said he hopes so.

"Myself personally, it is [a benefit], and the local people are going to have sustain whatever comes about from this mine," he said.

Longtime resident Laura Herauf-Ignatiuk said she worries about the uncertainty surrounding the mine's potential social, environmental and economic impacts.

"It's hard to see as a young person, coming back here and wanting to build a life," she said, adding that Kronau would no longer be the farming community it is now.

But other residents like Jill Hoffart say a mining boom would rejuvenate Kronau, which has dwindled in recent years as more young people move to urban centres.

"It would be potential for more families moving in and more production out here," said Hoffart, who is raising her toddler in the community.

Water usage an issue

The mine at Kronau would be a solution mine, in which water is used to separate the potash from other minerals.

As there is no water source near Kronau, Vale wants to build a 70-kilometre water pipeline from Kronau to Katepwa Lake in the Qu'Appelle Valley.

Peter Leavitt of the University of Regina says there should be a public debate on how much water can be used by companies that want to mine potash in the province. (CBC)

The company wants to pump more than 40 million litres of water — the equivalent of 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools — out of the lake every day.

"We're using a resource that is very limited — water — and we need to be much more careful about how we spend it," said Peter Leavitt, a water expert with the University of Regina.

Leavitt said Saskatchewan is moving too quickly on some potash mining requests, adding that there should be a public debate on how much water can be used by potash companies.

The province needs to look at the combined impact of all the mines on the Qu'Appelle river system, he said.

"What you would do is you would ask different questions," he said.

"Instead of asking, 'Is there enough water to take out for this project right now,' also ask the question, 'How much water can we take out before there's a degradation of the system?'"

The provincial body that regulates Saskatchewan's water supply is currently studying whether there is enough water to meet Vale's request.

People living in the Katepwa Lake area say they are concerned about the effects the mine — and the withdrawal of all that water — would have on not just their water supply, but on the province's lakes.