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Alberta reinstates coal mining safeguards after critics warn of polluted rivers

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In 2020, the Government of Alberta repealed regulations that protected large stretches of the Rocky Mountains and the eastern slopes from metallurgical coal mining. Photo credit: BGSmith, Adobe Stock

The Alberta government has reversed a coal mining policy decision that critics say eased certain environmental safeguards and threatened contamination of Saskatchewan rivers, in order to allow expanded exploration.

Saskatchewan’s New Democratic Party and environmental advocates within both provinces had called on the Alberta government to restore the recently scrapped environmental safeguards that they said made the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers vulnerable to open-pit coal mining in the Rocky Mountains.

The safeguards — in place for more than 40 years to protect against potential selenium contamination — addressed surface mining in the Eastern Slopes. In 2020, the Government of Alberta repealed regulations that protected large stretches of the Rocky Mountains and the eastern slopes from metallurgical coal mining.

“An important part of being a responsible government is to admit when you’ve made a mistake, and to fix it,” announced Sonya Savage, Alberta Minister of Energy, in a statement. “Albertans have spoken loud and clear and we have heard them. Not only will we reinstate the full 1976 coal policy, we will implement further protections and consult with Albertans on a new, modern coal policy,” she added.

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Saskatchewan NDP Opposition Critic for the Environment, Erika Ritchie, warned in a statement that Alberta was “running the risk of polluting the major sources of Saskatchewan’s agricultural and drinking water supplies.”

Ritchie added that while Saskatchewan Party ministers aren’t responsible for Premier Jason Kenney’s decision to repeal protections for the Rocky Mountains, “these ministers do have a responsibility to stand up for our province,” and apply pressure to restore the protections, she said.

Savage noted that the Alberta government has reinstated the four coal categories, which dictated where and how coal leasing, exploration and development could occur.

The government also cancelled several new coal mining leases in Alberta, but at least six leases granted before the change remain in effect, and continue to stir controversy.

According to Savage, the Ministry of Energy has issued a directive to the Alberta Energy Regulator that all future coal exploration approvals on Category 2 lands will be prohibited, pending widespread consultations on a new coal policy.

In addition to the criticism from the Saskatchewan NDP, Savage said there was significant public backlash to last year’s coal policy decision. In recent weeks, there were several high-profile protests that included virtual concerts against the expansion of mining operations.

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