Skip to content

Alberta promises close watch on new mines but cuts oversight of coal-polluted rivers

EDMONTON — Alberta government documents show repeated cuts to environmental monitoring despite contaminants in some waterways that exceed thresholds that are supposed to trigger increased scrutiny.

EDMONTON — Alberta government documents show repeated cuts to environmental monitoring despite contaminants in some waterways that exceed thresholds that are supposed to trigger increased scrutiny.

The province's 2019 five-year monitoring plan shows stations on two rivers and a creek polluted with selenium from coal mines were mothballed. That was despite more than two decades of readings that Alberta Environment guidelines suggest should have led to closer attention. 

The only station still operating is on the McLeod River about 200 kilometres downstream of the old Cheviot mine.

The United Conservative government has pointed to "strict regulatory standards" in an increasingly heated debate over its plan to increase coal mining in the Rocky Mountains. 

"It's quite clear the government is undercutting the very protections they claim to have in place," said Opposition New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt.

An independent analysis of government data has shown that the McLeod and Gregg Rivers and Luscar Creek in the Rocky Mountain foothills east of Jasper, Alta., were heavily contaminated downstream from coal mines with selenium, which is toxic at elevated levels. 

They were nearly nine times higher in the Gregg River and 11 times higher in Luscar Creek, despite years of reclamation. They were six times higher in the McLeod River.

Bill Donahue, Alberta's former executive director of science, found that selenium levels in all the samples from Gregg River and Luscar Creek greatly exceeded Alberta Environment's so-called "alert" level.

Nearly half the McLeod River samples also crossed that line, which is supposed to trigger enhanced oversight as per the province's 2018 environmental quality guidelines:

"Exceedance of the Alert concentration in sensitive environments indicates the need for increasing monitoring of water and other ecosystem components to support early detection of selenium bioaccumulation."

Alberta Environment did not respond to a request for comment.

Environment Minister Jason Nixon and other members of the UCP caucus have repeatedly said any new mine will be subject to close scrutiny.

"The environment remains protected by the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, including our treasured headwaters," says a UCP website titled Coal Hard Facts. "Alberta’s water supply is not at risk.

"All coal projects go through a strict regulatory and consultation process."

Schmidt called those statements a distraction. 

"It's desperate spin to avoid talking about the real issues with coal mining," he said. 

"It looks like the government is wilfully ignoring the problem and wants it to go away."

The stations were shuttered after years of monitoring cuts at Alberta Environment under both conservative and NDP governments.  

Budget documents show money spent on keeping track of what's happening in Alberta's air, land and water peaked in 2015-16 at $28 million and has been declining ever since. After another five per cent cut in the most recent budget, spending now sits at $22.5 million. 

The cuts are bigger than they seem, said Donahue, who left government in 2018, because the monitoring department has fixed costs that don't change. 

"The only funds that are available for monitoring and science are what's left after all of those fixed costs are paid," he wrote in an email. "What those cuts to monitoring and science budgets ... mean is that there is less and less funding available for in-house monitoring."

The last budget also cut funding by 22 per cent to the Alberta Energy Regulator, responsible for overseeing energy development. 

Donahue said there is less monitoring happening now than there was six years ago when he joined the department. 

"Annual budget cuts absolutely resulted in reduced monitoring and science," he said.

The government has already sold exploration leases for about 1.4 million hectares of land that holds the headwaters of rivers on which all of southern Alberta depends. Hundreds of drill sites and kilometres of roads have been approved.

The province points to hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in royalties for provincial coffers.  

More than 100,000 signatures have been gathered on protest petitions and at least six area municipalities have spoken in opposition. Popular Alberta entertainers from Jann Arden to Corb Lund have added their criticism.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2021

— Follow @row1960 on Twitter

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press