A pristine wilderness area west of Rocky Mountain House is slated for coal strip mining, alarming many area residents who worry about potential contamination of headwaters and habitat destruction. (Contributed photo).

Central Alberta naturalists fear pristine headwaters will be contaminated by coal mine

Chutes of the Ram constitute one of Earth’s ‘most beautiful’ spots

Alberta should never be so economically desperate, that it’s willing to strip mine one of the most beautiful spots on Earth, says a local conservationist.

Yet, that’s what’s slated for a pristine wilderness area 45 kilometres west of Rocky Mountain House, says Dean Baayens, a Red Deer-based fisheries expert with the Alberta Fish and Game Association.

Baayens is among the area naturalists, anglers and hunters who are alarmed the Ram River Coal Corp. is preparing to surface mine two large blocks in the Chutes of the Ram River area.

The Alberta Wilderness Association says the provincial government recently removed — with no public consultation — protections that had previously spared some sensitive ecological areas from open pit mining.

Baayens considers the remote forested spot at the confluence of the north and south streams of the Ram River, “the most awe-inspiring place in Alberta…

“It should be a world heritage site,” he adds — and might be, if more people knew about it.

There are waterfalls and sulphur springs in this part of the foothills, as well as fossil imprints on uniquely patterned cliff formations, says Baayens.

He notes the Chutes of the Ram River is habitat for Alberta’s last strong populations of bull trout, Alberta’s provincial fish.

Cutthroat trout are also plentiful — and Red Deer angler and conservationist Bill Young says this healthy “blue-ribbon” fishery attests to the purity of the headwaters that feed the Red Deer and Saskatchewan rivers, sources of our drinking water.

“It takes no imagination to also realize the environmental degradation that will (potentially) result, both locally and globally,” from a mining operation, says Young.

He believes every resident of Alberta and Saskatchewan — especially farmers and ranchers — should be concerned.

If coal extraction has to happen in this spot, Baayens wants alternatives to open pit mining to be explored, so this natural gem isn’t “lost forever.” He’s planning to lobby the government for a change.

Coking coal, used in the steel-making process, is to be mined from this vein.

The Ram River Coal Corp. could not be reached for comment. But a technical report prepared for the company in 2017 states this project could generate $4.4 billion over its lifespan.

The Vancouver-based mining company was given a 15-year exclusive lease that’s renewable. The company’s north and south block coal seam leases each measure about 15 kilometres long and three kilometres wide.

Nissa Petterson, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, is concerned about the provincial government’s recent policy change that lifts a strip mining ban for sensitive lands, including along the Ram River.

She says this will open more than 4.7 million hectares to “boom-and-bust” coal developments, and wonders why this change was made without public input.

Her association is worried about potential contamination of the headwaters of Alberta’s rivers, as well as destruction of habitat for endangered woodland caribou, threatened grizzly bears and bull trout, and other species, such as bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

Petterson believes they had “marginal” protection before, and will have no safeguards now.

While past provincial policies attempted to strike a balance between economic and ecological interests, Petterson feels this has now been “skewed,” making it much harder to make recovery plans for dwindling populations of woodland caribou.

The Alberta Environment department, under minister Jason Nixon, stated that the previous 1976 coal policy, which dictated how and where coal leasing, exploration and development could occur, was outdated.

It needed to be “improved and developed to ensure appropriate regulatory and environmental protection measures are in place before new coal projects are authorized.”

Although the department was asked to respond to specific concerns about the Ram River project, a general statement was released indicating that the Alberta Energy Regulator will continue to evaluate mining applications on a project’s “ability to meet environmental, social and economic criteria…

“We will continue to uphold our province’s stringent environmental standards, (managing for) watershed, biodiversity, recreation and tourism values.”



lmichelin@reddeeradvocate.com

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Local angler Matt Dick is among those concerned about a strip mine that’s planned for a pristine natural area along the Ram River, 45 kilometres west of Rocky Mountain House. (Contributed photo).

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