Minister Wilkinson must help protect water in the Prairies from coal mining in the Rockies

Joint Letter
Vendredi 23 avril 2021 - 17:00

TO: The Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson
Minister of Environment and Climate Change

RE: Help protect interprovincial waters from coal mining

Dear Minister Wilkinson,

There is nothing as critically integral to life as water — water connects us all. And for years, the provinces, territories, and the federal government have recognized the importance of protecting shared waters through transboundary water agreements. 

In the Prairies, the Master Agreement on Apportionment (MAA) has for more than half a century ensured that the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba collaborate on the best uses of the waterways that connect them. But coal developments on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, at the headwaters of major rivers and tributaries that supply water to millions of people across all three provinces, are now threatening that agreement. 

Today, we join together in asking that you help uphold this important interprovincial agreement by invoking your authority under the Canada Water Act. We ask that you show leadership by directing the Prairie Provinces Water Board to conduct a comprehensive study on the cumulative effects of multiple coal mining projects in the headwaters. We must ascertain the impact that these projects will have on all downstream users before they proceed any further.

We ask this because both the quality and quantity requirements stipulated under the MAA are impacted by coal developments, as is the spirit of collaboration and consultation that the agreement has tried to foster.

Coal mining diminishes water supply for neighbouring provinces

Under the MAA, the province of Alberta has agreed to direct one-half of the natural flow of its water into the province of Saskatchewan.1 But coal mining on the eastern slopes could put a significant strain on that commitment, directly affecting the flows available for entering Saskatchewan, and then Manitoba — be it for irrigation, food production, ecosystem support, hydro-electricity, the drinking water supply, or the maintenance of a healthy aquatic environment.

This is a dangerous proposition at a time when the region is already subject to droughts, and when seasonal water shortages are expected to only worsen due to the climate crisis. 

Headwaters for the Oldman River sub-basin will be directly impacted by Benga Mining’s Grassy Mountain Coal Project (currently under review by a joint federal-provincial panel), as well as by additional coal mines in the eastern slopes that await approval. This water-scarce basin has been closed to new water allocations since 2006, partly to ensure the province can fulfill its obligation to provide water to neighbouring provinces.2

Meanwhile, the Alberta government has proposed new water allocations that would make it easier for coal companies to draw water from the headwaters of the Oldman watershed.3 These changes could endanger the health of small headwater streams and rivers that are critical habitat for at-risk populations of Bull Trout and Westslope Cutthroat Trout.

As the responsible minister, you have a legislative responsibility to ensure critical habitat for these threatened species is protected and that additional habitat is also available for species recovery efforts. This cannot be accomplished in the face of ongoing coal exploration and proposed coal mines.

Serious water contamination is inevitable

Coal mining in Alberta’s headwaters also has implications for the province’s water quality commitments made under the MAA. According to leading scientists, it is undisputed that open-pit coal mining contaminates nearby water, with potentially disastrous results for downstream ecosystems, municipalities, and agricultural and ranching operations.4

Coal mining leaches toxic concentrations of selenium and arsenic into the water.5 That risk is only multiplied when there is a possibility of several mines operating in the same watershed.6 This, at a time when selenium levels are already dangerously high in some Alberta waterways because of previous coal mines development.7

Leaching of selenium is an environmental disaster for fish and wildlife health, causing deformities, nerve damage, and reproductive failure in fish, mammals and migratory birds — even long after the coal mines are gone. In British Columbia’s Elk Valley, home to four coal mines, selenium levels have reached 50 times the safe limit for aquatic health.8 New remediation methods currently lack long-term studies on efficacy at the scale and field conditions of currently proposed mines.

Catastrophic failures of mining infrastructure are also a great risk to downstream water quality. The Obed mine disaster in 2013 released 670 million litres of contaminated water into tributaries of the Athabasca river, and the plume of tailings water travelled more than 1,100 km downstream. This release is expected to cause long-term damage, as spring runoff mobilizes contaminants each year.9

Shared waters require consultation

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Canada signed the MAA in a spirit of consultation and cooperation, to reach common goals around shared water resources. But we believe that the decision by the Alberta government to allow coal exploration and mining activities, which have inevitable consequences for other Prairie provinces, violates that spirit. 

While the Alberta government is in the process of conducting public consultations about a new, updated coal policy, the scope of these consultations must be expanded to include all those affected downstream — including in other provinces. 

This lack of consultation is not without precedent. Last summer, the Alberta government temporarily suspended water quality monitoring on rivers that flow through oilsands and into the Northwest Territories, without informing that jurisdiction — a clear violation of its transboundary obligations.10 We must ensure that the province never again fails in its responsibility to consult and cooperate with its neighbours.

We must also ensure that both the Province and Canada honour their obligations to consult meaningfully with First Nations — who have protected their land and water since time immemorial — and ensure their constitutionally-protected rights are not unjustifiably infringed as a result of authorizing new coal mines on their ancestral lands along the Eastern Slopes and downstream, across Western Canada.

Help uphold interprovincial water agreements

It is imperative that you exercise your authority under the Canada Water Act, and in doing so demonstrate your commitment to the well-being and prosperity of people across the Prairies. You can do this by ensuring a comprehensive study has been carried out to ascertain the full impacts of multiple coal exploration projects in Alberta’s headwaters.

The Rockies supply drinking water to millions of Canadians living in the Prairies. They are also integral to aquatic life in the headwaters and downstream, including for threatened species. The mechanisms for collectively sharing and protecting that water are already there. But we urgently need your help in upholding them.

Sincerely,

Christina Kruszewski, Regional Organizer PNWT, Council of Canadians 
Katie Morrison, Conservation Director, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southern Alberta 
Tara Russell, Program Director, CPAWS Northern Alberta
Bill Trafford, President, Livingstone Landowners Group
Adam North Peigan, Chair, Mountain Child Valley Society, Piikani First Nation
Jesse Cardinal, Executive Director, Keepers of the Water
Latasha Calf Robe, Co-Lead, Niitsitapi Water Protectors
Christyann Olson, Executive Director, Alberta Wilderness Association
Braum Barber, Chair, Southern Alberta Group for Environment
Gordon Petersen, Board, Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition
Vivian Pharis, Vice President, Bighill Creek Preservation Society
Gord Vaadeland, Executive Director, CPAWS Saskatchewan
Ron Thiessen, Executive Director, CPAWS Manitoba
Anjali Helferty, PhD, Interim Executive Director, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) National 
Andrea Hull, MD CCFP, Alberta Regional Committee co-chair, CAPE
Jessica Madrid, RN, MSc, President, Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment (CANE)
Maya Kalogirou, RN, PhD, Alberta Representative, CANE 
Wanda Martin, RN, PhD, Saskatchewan Representative, CANE 
Helen Boyd, RN, MA, BC Representative, CANE 
Marilyne Tovar, RN, Manitoba Representative, CANE 
Lindsay Boucher, Prairie Chapter Coordinator, Sierra Club Canada Foundation
Art Jackson, President, West Athabasca Bio-regional Society (WABS)
Graham Saul, Executive Director of Nature Canada
Hilary Young, Senior Alberta Program Manager, Yellowstone To Yukon Conservation Initiative
Dianne Rhodes, Climate Justice Saskatoon
Robert Wilde, Co-Chair, Edmonton Chapter of the Council of Canadians
Chris D’Lima, Chair, Red Deer Chapter of the Council of Canadians
Winnipeg Chapter of the Council of Canadians
David Greenfield, Chair, Saskatoon Chapter of the Council of Canadians 
Jim Elliott, Chair, Regina Chapter of the Council of Canadians
Nancy Carswell, Contact Person, Prince Albert Chapter of the Council of Canadians
David Condon, Chair, Medicine Hat Chapter of the Council of Canadians

CC:

Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Canada
Seamus O'Regan, Minister of Natural Resources, Canada
Jason Kenney, Premier of Alberta
Scott Moe, Premier of Saskatchewan
Brian Pallister, Premier of Manitoba
Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks, Alberta
Devin Dreeshen, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Alberta
Warren Kaeding, Minister of Environment, Saskatchewan
Fred Bradshaw, Minister Responsible for Water Security Agency, Saskatchewan
Sarah Guillemard, Minister of Conservation and Climate, Manitoba
Blaine Pederson, Minister of Agriculture and Resource Development, Manitoba


1. https://www.ppwb.ca/about-us/what-we-do/1969-master-agreement-on-apportionment/master-agreement-on-apportionment

2. https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/80929751-96f2-4cf7-b34f-6f817c0d92ae/resource/fa23a09a-5edf-4d52-8fbd-766a5e7641aa/download/waterallocationsouthsaskatchewan-sep2016.pdf

3. https://thenarwhal.ca/alberta-coal-mining-rockies-oldman-river/

4. Dennis A. Lemly, “Aquatic hazard of selenium pollution from coal mining,” in Coal mining: Research, Technology, and Safety, ed. G.B. Fosdyke (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2008), 167-183.

5. Mark Wayland and Robert Crosley, “Selenium and Other Trace Elements in Aquatic Insects in Coal Mine–Affected Streams in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada,” Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 50 (2006: 511–522.
https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/coal-scientist-alberta-mining-rocky-mountains-contamination-ucp-1.5915245

6. https://oldmanwatershed.ca/blog-posts/2021/1/26/navigating-our-future-coal-mining-in-the-oldman-watershed-part-2

7. https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/contaminant-from-coal-mines-already-high-in-some-alberta-rivers-unreported-data-1.5280626

8. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/us-epa-pollution-rivers-teck-mines-bc-1.5564269

9. https://norj.ca/2013/12/scientist-expects-long-term-damage-from-coal-spill

10. https://globalnews.ca/news/7169261/alberta-suspending-oilsands-monitoring-north-west-territories/