Coal leases in scenic tourist areas around Nordegg — including near Crescent Falls and Goldeye and Fish Lakes, were recently granted by the Alberta government.
It’s causing an outcry from Nordegg-area residents and eco-tourism business owners who are horrified that strip mining could someday be started at their doorstep.
These residents are outraged that that no public feedback was sought by the UCP government before these coal leases were granted.
Scott Sheldrake, a Nordegg home builder, recalled that area MLA Jason Nixon had condemned the former NDP government for not doing enough public consultations before proposing the creation of a Bighorn provincial park.
Now that Nixon’s party is in government and he is Environment Minister, the coal leases were “rammed through without talking to anyone. It’s hypocritical,” said Sheldrake.
Alberta Energy granted the coal leases without Clearwater County’s knowledge.
Rick Emmons, Clearwater County’s administrative officer, said he’s been telling the many upset Nordegg residents that the county wasn’t consulted about the coal leases before they were given out.
While the municipality has no jurisdiction over Crown land, Emmons confirmed that the Nordegg area had been pegged for eco-tourism in the municipality’s development plans.
He feels it would be nice if the provincial government had acted more in partnership with the municipality when making long-term plans.
At this point, Emmons intends “to act as a conduit,” bringing the people’s voice to the government’s ear. He’s planning a video chat with Nixon about residents’ concerns.
Peter Brodsky, press secretary with the Minister of Energy’s office, maintained that public consultation “remains a pillar of the coal development process,” but is not necessary for obtaining a coal lease.
A lease “in no way, allows for exploration or development,” he stressed. “It merely gives the company the ability to ‘stake a claim’ in the minerals below.
“A lease does not mean that there is going to be a coal mine – only our modern regulatory process can allow that.”
But area residents don’t believe so many leases were granted without a government plan to have some coal strip mining in the area.
“This is a very, very terrible thing that’s been done to us,” said Marla Zapach, of Skadi Wilderness Adventures in Nordegg.
Tourists from across Canada and the world come to see Alberta’s wilderness — not the tops of mountains strip-mined for coal, said Zapach, who owns four back-country cabins.
“People come here from England and Germany… They want a very remote natural experience” — not be in the midst of resource extraction, she added.
Sheldrake’s family moved to Nordegg from Calgary in 2008 to get away from industry and to become immersed in the clean, mountain environment.
Since then, he figures the hamlet’s permanent population has tripled, including 30 families now living in a new subdivision north of the highway. But Sheldrake predicts most of them will leave if they have to “breathe in coal dust.”
Potential pollution and water contamination problems are of great concern to many area residents, including Alan Ernst of Aurum Lodge.
Ernst said the UCP government did not impress when it rescinded a policy last June that had formerly made it difficult to strip mine in the region, which contains the headwaters of many rivers that Albertans rely on for drinking water.
“They claim to listen to the public, then they do anything they want,” he added.
Nordegg resident Nick Frank believes the coal mine leases represent a “huge” environmental risk.
“It’s a short-sighted plan for the government to try to get some jobs started,” said Frank — again in the fossil fuels industry, instead of investing in other kinds of industries that will bring a better future for the province.
A recent Advocate reader poll found less than nine per cent of respondents favoured coal mining in the Rockies compared to more than 92 per cent who did not.
Strong public reaction against coal mining caused the Alberta government to recently “pause” some approved coal leases in the Crow’s Nest Pass area. But environmentalists say these are only about one per cent all the coal leases granted in the province.
Brodsky maintained that consultations must be done if leaseholders wish to develop a leased parcel. “There is also a significant period for public input and comment on a project review – both written and through public hearing, ” including consultation with First Nations.
All exploration and development will be overseen by the Alberta Energy Regulator. But Brodsky added “the Alberta government remains steadfast in our commitment to responsible energy development – and that includes ensuring any prospective coal projects adhere to rigorous environmental standards.”