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Eco groups worried about Alberta lobbying for coal mines in Rockies

Premier Danielle Smith said that her government would abide the decision of the court to release the documents that the province had been stifling despite a FOIP request.
The proposed site for the Grassy Mountain coal project near Crowsnest Pass in southwest Alberta.

The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) are speaking out about the UCP government’s secrecy revolving around allowing open-pit coal mining.

The Canadian Press recently obtained documents proving as much through an Alberta FOIP request after a group of southern Alberta ranchers spent four years fighting Alberta Energy. That fight was to learn more about why the province walked back from a decades-old policy protecting the Rocky Mountains from coal mines.

For at least seven months before letting Albertans know its plans, the Alberta government was talking about opening those landscapes to potential coal mine development, the documents show.

“I think transparency around how our public resources are being managed is a huge issue,” said Devon Earl, conservation specialist with the AWA.

“These decisions about coal mining, for example, they impact everybody, especially because of their impacts to water and wildlife and wild spaces. People deserve to have that information.”

The province’s actions prompted much industry interest in coal exploration across thousands of hectares. The decision was eventually backtracked after public outcry against open-pit coal mines.

Earlier this month, a judge refuted the government’s attempts to block further information releases about the decision. Now, the ranchers are anticipating thousands of more pages of the province’s documents to come their way.

Earl said that a lot of the time, it does come down to freedom of information requests for the public to know about what the government is doing. The AWA has had experiences of submitting a FOIP request and then still having fight to get any information back because the request will be stymied by the government.

It also takes a long time to get any information back from a FOIP request. That also contributes to the lack of accessible and transparent information about government decision-making, she said.

“The news makes it clear that the public and the environment's voice was left out of the decision-making that led to the removal the coal policy in May 2020. Now, after the huge public backlash we saw, and the continued attention to the issue, it's clear that Albertans do not want to endure the environmental damage that coal mining brings,” said Tara Russell, program director with CPAWS Northern Alberta.

“CPAWS Northern Alberta firmly believes that environmental impacts should be considered in any land use decisions, it's abundantly clear that it was not considered in this one.”

Coal mining comes with serious environmental concerns including selenium pollution and it should not have a place on the Eastern Slope of the Rockies, Earl said. It has massive negative impacts on water and Bull trout and Westslope cutthroat trout, which have lost much of their habitat already.

Those two species of endangered native trout act much like the proverbial canaries in a coal mine in terms of the health of aquatic ecosystems.

“They are an indicator of the health of the whole ecosystem and the biodiversity that the ecosystem can sustain,” Earl said.

“We want to make sure that anything that we're doing is not harming [them].”

During question period on April 9, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley referred to the judge’s decision, saying that sometimes court rulings can be confusing and unclear, “but in throwing out the UCP’s unending attempts to hide all the ways they’re pushing to mine the Rocky Mountains, the judge was plain and explicit.”

“He said, ‘Albertans have practically been denied access to the information they are entitled to at law.’ He added, ‘This court will not abet this conduct.’”

She asked Premier Danielle Smith how she could expect Albertans to trust her when her government breaks transparency rules as easily as she breaks her promises.

In response, the premier said, “We will abide by the decision of the court.”

The Fitzhugh reached out the Energy Minister Brian Jean’s office for comment. In an email response, Jean said, “The decision is under review to determine if an appeal should be filed. We recognize that there is public interest related to coal production in Alberta, which is why the department has released many public documents and information through FOIP requests and other disclosure mechanisms. As the premier said, we will provide any documents required by the courts.”

Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ecology and Environment Reporter at the Fitzhugh Newspaper since July 2022 under Local Journalism Initiative funding provided by News Media Canada.
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