The town that coal built

As Alberta transitions away from coal-fired power, these miners — and their town — are left with an uncertain future.

At 53 years old, Dennis Bauer is in a tricky spot. He’s too young to retire, but old enough to worry about how he’ll be perceived as he prepares to re-enter the job market.

“It’s a great age to be looking for a job,” he said sarcastically. “You have experience, on one hand. At the same time, there’s no real long-term use for you, I guess.”

For the past 19 years, Bauer has worked at the Highvale coal mine, just south of Wabamun, Alta., taking pride in helping to keep the province’s lights on. But when the nearby TransAlta power plant burns its last piece of coal on Dec. 31, Bauer will be out of work.

Coal has been mined in this part of Alberta for more than 100 years, playing a key role in the local economy and identity. Tall smokestacks are a fixture on the horizon.

And while there’s plenty of coal left in the rolling fields around Lake Wabamun, that black rock will remain in the ground as the mine closes.

Dennis Bauer, who has been working at the Highvale mine for the last 19 years, will be laid off at the end of this month. (Sam Martin/CBC)

As the world intensifies efforts to combat climate change, coal — a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — is on its way out. Canada has committed to phasing out all coal-fired electricity by 2030.

But the year before that pledge, Alberta’s previous NDP government made the same commitment, while promising to help the workers and communities affected with the transition.

It has all happened more quickly than the workers expected.

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Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, Bauer says he understands why some people may not feel sorry for him losing a job that pays more $100,000 a year. But it’s daunting for someone like him, without a college diploma, university degree or trade certificate, to think about finding a new job.

“I’ve always worked hard, since I was 17 years old,” said Bauer, who was in the middle of working seven consecutive night shifts, picking up all the work he could before the mine’s closure.

Bauer says he worries about how he’ll pay his mortgage in the new year and his stress has been mounting the closer he gets to being laid off, even popping up in his dreams.

“I’ve just been nose to the grindstone — grab everything I can, because I don’t know what the future holds.”

The Highvale coal mine has been a fixture of Wabamun, Alta., for generations. (Sam Martin/CBC)

The Highvale mine is Canada’s largest surface strip coal mine, spanning more than 126 square kilometers — about the same size as Lethbridge. The mine is just south of Lake Wabamun and about a 45 minute drive west of Edmonton.

When the Alberta government first announced its plans to phase out coal in 2015, there were nearly 700 unionized workers at the Highvale mine and hundreds more in the province’s wider coal industry.

Since then, several rounds of layoffs have taken place, with hundreds of workers already moving on. Many younger workers, with less seniority, already moved onto other jobs or other towns. The final major layoff at the mine at the end of the year will see 78 positions eliminated, including Bauer’s.

While the province provides programs to help workers like Bauer with a so-called “just transition” away from coal, he says it doesn’t feel very just. Or fair.

“You take away everything somebody has and, yeah, I think people can get pretty unrestful. I think they can get pretty upset,” he said.

Jobs in the coal sector aren’t just any jobs. They’re high-paying, unionized jobs, often in rural communities with few, if any, other industries.

“These jobs aren’t coming back,” said Roy Milne. “And the green jobs that are supposed to be coming along don’t have the same rate of pay, generally. Don’t have benefits.”

Milne, 63, is another coal worker whose last day will be Dec. 31. He’s worked at the mine for 38 years and is president of United SteelWorkers Local 1595.

He became union president in 2015 — the same year the Notley government announced Alberta’s phaseout of coal. Over the last six years, he’s overseen many rounds of layoffs.

“It’s been not a great thing to watch, sort of like a controlled train wreck,” said Milne.

Milne is taking a voluntary layoff and considers himself one of the lucky ones, because he will leave with an unreduced pension — perhaps just a couple years earlier than he would have.

Roy Milne, who has worked at the mine for 38 years, has opted to take a voluntary layoff. (Sam Martin/CBC)

His family has deep roots in the area and first started homesteading in nearby Duffield in 1903. He still lives in the small hamlet and he keeps a farm going with his brother.

Milne is grateful he had a good, steady job for so long. It allowed him to keep the farm and to give his three kids a good upbringing. Now he worries about what kind of jobs will be available for the next generation.

All the layoffs have had a human toll, Milne says, and he’s had a front row seat to that, with many people coming to his office in tears after receiving notices.

“It’s not real until it’s real, and that could be wrenching on families,” he said.

“They didn’t keep driving a truck on the weekend just in case they ever lost their job, because they had a job that was going to take them through to retirement.”

Listen to the radio documentary The Last Coal Miners from CBC’s The Doc Project.

The accelerated demise of coal didn’t give workers enough time to adjust, Milne argues.

And it’s a hard pill for some workers to swallow when they think about how the company is receiving $486 million for leaving that coal in the ground.

That’s how much the province paid TransAlta under the Off-Coal Agreement struck in 2016, under which the company will get $37.4 million per year, from 2017 to 2030, in exchange for weaning off the fossil fuel.

Under the terms of that agreement, TransAlta committed to maintain “a significant business presence in Alberta” and to support communities and employees negatively affected by the end of coal operations.

But instead of phasing out coal by 2030, TransAlta tightened the timeline and committed to being coal-free by 2022, switching to natural gas at all of its four coal-fired plants in Alberta.

The company says the decision to accelerate that transition was the result of a number of policies beyond the agreement, including carbon pricing.

The nearby Keephills Generating Station will burn its last piece of coal on Dec. 31. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Initially, Milne had thought few layoffs would be necessary because the 2030 timeline would allow for a number of workers to leave through attrition and retirement.

“Then there was the sudden panic to close them right away, because the Earth was going to shut down if we didn’t get rid of these coal plants. And that changed, like, ‘Bang.’”

The Alberta government set aside $40 million to help coal workers and local communities with the transition. There is money for coal workers to go back to school to retrain, relocation money to help them move to find another job and enhanced employment insurance payments. There is also a so-called “bridge to retirement” for older workers.

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Milne says he appreciates this help and is glad workers have had a few years to prepare for the winding down of coal. But he says there is much more to be done when it comes to actually helping those facing job losses.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also pledged to bring in so-called “just transition” legislation to support provinces like Alberta and their workers as the country moves away from fossil fuels in 2019. But the federal government has yet to introduce such a bill.

Last July, it launched consultations on the matter, which are ongoing. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources minister said “more details on any proposed legislation … will be available in the coming months.”

At the centre of all of this change is the village of Wabamun, a small, 650-person community perched on the edge of the lake bearing the same name.

Many locals gather at the Wabamun Hotel Restaurant; it used to be the go-to place for the SteelWorkers executive members when their office was just around the corner.

The village of Wabamun has a population of about 650. Its claim to fame is its 10-metre-long dragonfly sculpture. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Three local women eating lunch at the restaurant had strong feelings about the end of coal.

Linda Maciocha, 73, lives on the other side of Lake Wabamun, right across from the mine.

“Coal’s been part of our lives all along,” she said. “It just kept the whole community together and the whole community going, I think.”

Until 2011, there was another coal-fired plant within the vicinity of town. But after that facility closed up and its smokestacks came tumbling down, the village lost about half of its tax base.

The Highvale mine closure and the latest job losses is just another blow.

“It kept the town going for many years and TransAlta was very generous to the village,” said Susan Fodor, 58, who has lived in Wabamun for 36 years. Her husband worked for TransAlta before he took an oil and gas job in Fort McMurray.

“TransAlta paid our mortgage, fed our kids, put them through hockey — it was a good job,” said Fodor. “It’s sad to see it go. And the town’s gotten smaller — friends left, they had to leave.”

From left to right in first photo: Susan Fodor, 58, Debbie Webster, 59, Linda Maciocha, 73, and Maciocha’s grandson gather for lunch at the Wabamun Hotel Restaurant. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Charlene Smylie, 47, is the former — and last — mayor of Wabamun. With the loss of so much tax revenue Wabamun was dissolved and amalgamated into the wider Parkland County at the end of 2020.

She says the loss of coal has been a major hit to Wabamun. “It’s a big part of our identity and what people do for a living out here,” said Smylie.

And while she feels for the workers, she is also keen to think about Wabamun’s future, rather than its past.

“Industries transition and people transition and towns transition. And we just have to keep rolling with the punches,” said Smylie. “We could be upset about it — and that’s all right. But it’s not going to change things.”

Wabamun received a $347,000 grant from Alberta’s Coal Community Transition Fund, meant to support municipalities impacted by the coal phaseout. Smylie says that money was invested in the community, going toward things like new signage, creation of a local business guide and training for local business owners.

Charlene Smylie was the last mayor of Wabamun before it was amalgamated in 2020. (Sam Martin/CBC)

The town’s claim to fame is its 10-metre-long dragonfly sculpture, because every June, when the temperature is just high enough, the lakeside village is inundated with dragonflies crawling out of the water, taking their maiden flights.

It’s a sight to behold, Smylie says, noting that Wabamun’s annual Dragonfly festival and the beauty of the village has attracted newcomers, tourists and artists over the years.

It’s also the perfect metaphor for what’s happening now.

“Dragonflies are all about transition,” she said. “So I think it’s really fitting.”

Smylie trained as an electrician and understands the pressures facing working people, but she’s also worried about climate change. Her husband, also an electrician, has a “green job” maintaining electric buses in Edmonton.

“I have little kids. I want them to be able to have a planet to live on. And I know these changes aren’t easy, but I think they do need to happen,” said Smylie.

There is a clear scientific consensus that ending coal is essential for preventing the worst effects of climate change. Before committing to its phase-out, Alberta was Canada’s province most reliant on coal for electricity.

TransAlta is converting the power plants around Wabamun from coal to natural gas — another fossil fuel, but one that emits about half the amount of carbon dioxide. As a result, the company reports it has reduced its emissions by just under 26 megatons since 2005.

“To hear the news that we would be shutting down and the impact on our employees — that was very tough,” said Ryan Braden, TransAlta’s manager of hydro and mining.

Braden has lived in the area since 2008. He says the company knew that transitioning off coal was necessary, but they wanted to do everything they could for the employees.

TransAlta organized job fairs that helped some coal workers find new jobs, he said.

“We also did a lot of different training,” said Braden. “We really tried to get our employees to have the best skillbase they could have to find those future roles.”

As a company, TransAlta has committed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, saying it sees opportunity in the transition to clean, green energy. Transitioning off coal is just a start.

“Now that I look back at it, I’ll tell you, I have a lot of pride for the way we did it, a lot of pride for the way we interacted with our employees and really tried to do everything we could for them,” said Braden.

“I think we’ve really set a standard.”

Don Gray is not so sure.

“The problem was they didn’t ask us what we needed out of this,” said Gray, who is also being laid off this month. “They just asked the companies, ‘What do you need?’”

He thinks the government didn’t attach enough strings to the money it gave to TransAlta.

“They give it all in one fell swoop, which meant, ‘Wow, we can shut down faster than we ever thought we could,’” said Gray. “Damn the torpedoes, everybody else is out the door.”

Gray’s grandfather also hauled coal and he worked alongside his father at the coal mine when he first started working at the age of 17.

Now 52, after working in coal mines for nearly 35 years, Gray is just shy of making retirement. When he’s laid off at the end of the year, he’ll receive enhanced EI payments but will have a reduced pension.

He considers that pension a “stranded asset” and thinks workers in his position should be compensated the way TransAlta was compensated for coal becoming its stranded asset.

Don Gray says that workers like him should be compensated after the coal mine closes. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

Gray has no interest in looking for a job installing windmills or solar panels. He’d have to travel for the work and says it would mean a significant pay cut.

For heavy machine and equipment operators like Gray, the jobs after coal often look a lot like the ones before coal. Former colleagues from the Highvale mine have gone on to find work in other coal mines, Fort McMurray or diamond mines, he said.

“They’re not finding jobs in windmills.”

Gray hopes that lessons can be learned from the phase-out of coal in Alberta before other fossil fuel-related jobs are lost. And the biggest lesson, he says, is to make workers the first priority.

“It’s very devastating to the people that are involved in this,” he said. “Somehow we have to come off fossil fuels, but the way it was done was just a little too harsh and quick.”

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CORRECTION: Due to a packaging error, this story was published without TransAlta’s comments. It has since been updated.

Dec. 22, 2021 4:40 PM ET


Written by: Kristin Nelson | Copy edited by: Amy Husser | Photographs by: Sam Martin | Lead Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Senior Digital Producer: Lakshine Sathiyanathan | Radio documentary by: Kristin Nelson

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