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Digging Holes and Piercing Mountains

To pick up where I left off in my last post, I have been visiting abandoned coal mine sites in the municipality of Crowsnest Pass which sits along the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Alberta.

Turtle Mountain, the site of the 1903 Frank Slide disaster. Photo: Alana Bartol.


Standing at the site, it looks like a massive part of Turtle Mountain fell only yesterday. The scars of the coal industry are not only inscribed directly on the land but are evidenced across the region in the ghost towns and their associated mines, (one Alberta ghost town map includes most of the towns in the area) gravesites and memorials like the one for the Hillcrest Mining Disaster, the worst mining disaster in Canadian history, as well as historical sites including the Frank Slide, the deadliest landslide in Canadian history.



The 1903 Frank Slide was the largest landslide in Canadian history. Over 100 million tonnes of limestone fell from Turtle Mountain burying part of Frank, a mining town in what was then Northwest Territories but is today the province of Alberta. Over 90 people were killed and some of the bodies were never recovered. Today, the town of Frank is part of the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass and the site of the disaster is a provincial historic site and a popular tourist destination where people can visit the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre.


The Burmis Tree. Iconic to the Crowsnest Pass, it may have lived up to 750 years. Photo: blkarts.ca

A limber pine that died in the 1970s, the Burmis Tree still stands (with some support) at the east highway entrance to the Crowsnest Pass. The Discover Crowsnest Heritage website describes it as "the most photographed tree in Canada". A portent of doom, this striking tree welcomes you to the region, warning of the tragedies that have come to pass and the continued settler colonial violence of fossil fuel extraction. This is land that Indigenous Peoples that have lived in, moved through, cared for, managed, and utilized since time immemorial.


What would it look like if the violent histories and impacts of white settler colonization were acknowledged? How would the stories of this place be told? How would they change? What images would they conjure?


Despite the tragedies, economic hardships, and loss of life, coal mining is still a way of life for many that live here and will likely continue to be into the future. Across the provincial boundary in Elk Valley, BC, there are five metallurgical coal mining operations operated by Teck Resources. A bird’s eye view from Google Maps makes visible the damage the coal operations have left on the land in British Columbia east of the Crowsnest Pass. Looking at images of these mines (including the few on-the-ground photographs I can find via Google search), I can't imagine seeing elk wandering in these hollowed-out areas that resemble amphitheaters more than mountains.


Map of Crowsnest Pass (red outline), from: "Crowsnest Pass, Alberta." Map, Google Maps. Accessed 3 Jul. 2020.  To the right of Sparwood is the Teck Elkview Operation, an open-pit coal mine.


The Greenhill Mine


On a previous trip to the Crowsnest Pass, I visited several abandoned coal mining sites. Initially, I was not sure why I was so drawn to the Greenhill Mine site, but having returned to the site this summer, I would soon find out. A private property sign from Riversdale Resources greets me on the road leading to the proposed Grassy Mountain Coal Project. The road is blocked and construction looks to be underway. A paper laminated sign reads that the road is closed to traffic unless permitted by Alberta Environment & Parks Ministerial Order.


The Greenhill Mine was a coal mining operation started by West Canadian Collieries (WCC) in 1913 that operated until 1957. WCC also operated Grassy Mountain strip mine in the 1940s and 1950s. WCC shut down shortly after its closure. The tipple of the mine is considered a historic site, but you wouldn't know it to look at it, as it has not been restored or maintained in any way. Fenced off and derelict, it is found across from the town of Blairmore, on the side of the Crowsnest Highway. The mine site is quite extensive with many buildings still standing, though it looks like at least one has been destroyed by arson. Some of the site is fenced off while other areas are open, including the entrance to a tunnel near the former mine entrance which has been blasted shut.


Former site of the Greenhill Mine. Photos: Alana Bartol and blkarts.ca. Click arrow to view.


In a site like this, it is hard to fathom what environmental remediation means or looks like or if it has even been attempted. The stench of sulphur filled the air as sulphur streams ran out from under the quonset. I observed strands of what that seemed to be growing along the edges of the stream and wondered if it was sulphur build up. Piles of core samples, still in wooden boxes, some marked "Grassy Mountain Mine" look as though they have been tossed about, scattered along the entrance.


Image: Alana Bartol and blkarts.ca.


Seeing the core samples, I was reminded of the research I did at the core storage libraries in Alberta and Newfoundland looking at core and drill cuttings samples from the petroleum industry. In my work, the cores have represented the birth of the extraction process; a violent removal. They must have no value to the industry now or they would be held away in warehouses and core storage libraries like the millions of other core samples from across the province.


Photographs of core samples from Alberta Energy Regulator Core Research Centre and the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board's Core Storage and Research Centre. Photos: Alana Bartol.


Coal Making a Comeback in a Climate Crisis


Since visiting the site, I began researching the Grassy Mountain Coal Project to learn about the potential impacts on a region already suffering from the negative consequences of coal extraction. Benga Mining Limited, a subsidiary of Riversdale Resources Limited (an Australian coal development company), is proposing the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, a metallurgical coal mine on an old mine site near Blairmore in the Crowsnest Pass. It is projected to extract 93 million tonnes of coal over 23 years. The coal would be shipped overseas where it is in high demand.


Metallurgic coal is used to make steel. Although it is considered to be of higher quality than coal burned for electricity, that does not make it any cleaner or safer for the planet. From transporting coal overseas to burning it in the blast furnace-basic oxygen steelmaking process, metallurgical coal adds millions of tonnes of greenhouses gases to global carbon emissions each year. More facts on so-called Canada’s coal can be found here.



Although Alberta is set to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030, it continues to see coal mining in its future. As of June 1, 2020, the Kenney government rescinded Coal Development Policy established in 1976 that restricted open-pit coal mining in ecologically sensitive areas including Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and Foothills. The Coal Policy created four categories of lands, which provided various protections from coal development and operation.


With protections gone, coal lease agreements may now become operating mines. With the prospect of jobs and investment in the region, many Albertans see coal mining as a way forward, out of the economic downturn from collapsing oil prices, exacerbated by the impacts of COVID-19. The development and operation of open-pit coal mines like the Grassy Mountain Coal Project threaten the health of headwaters, waterways, wildlife, including already threatened species like the Westlope Cuthroat Trout, plants, soil, and humans, not to mention the negative impacts on the climate.


In a time of climate, extinction, and ecological crisis, are we unable to imagine ways forward that are not predicated on the continued destruction of the environment? What if instead of investing in coal, we invested in recovering wildlife corridors and maintaining watershed health? What if we recognized that the Crowsnest and Oldman river watersheds are vital to the social, cultural, economic and spiritual health of people in Southern Alberta?

Mapping the Oldman Watershed on the Oldman Watershed Council website visualizes historic and future land use (11,000 BP - 2060) of the Oldman Watershed.


Riversdale Resources is just one of several companies (most of the companies are Australian) that are looking to begin open-pit coal mining operations in the Crowsnest Pass and other areas of the province. Atrum, another Australian company, has lease agreements just north of Grassy Mountain on land that was designated Category 2, opening up the potential to develop an open-pit coal mine. Unlike many of the potential projects, which were on former Category 2 lands under the 1976 Coal Policy (Category 2 restricted open-pit coal mines), the proposed Grassy Mountain Coal Project is on a small section of what was previously designated Category 4 land, which had less restrictions. It is already far along in the federal and provincial approval process and is looking to begin operations in 2021. Other mining companies are waiting in the wings, waiting to see if the Grassy Mountain Coal Project will move ahead.


As of June 2020 the environmental impact assessment and associated addenda have been deemed complete by the Joint Review Panel. A public hearing will be held in October 2020.


Notice of the Grassy Mountain Coal Project Public Hearing in the Crowsnest Pass Herald.

There has been both approval for and opposition to the Grassy Mountain Coal Project. Delving into the government impact assessment, there are tens of thousands of pages of documents, reports, and plans, including letters from individuals and stakeholders and documents outlining so-called “consultation” with the Káínai Ktunaxa, Piikani, Samson Cree, Siksika, Stoney Nakoda, and Tsuut'ina Nations, as well as Métis Nation of Alberta – Region 3.


In reading through the information as part of my research, I am interested in how I can reflect on the colonial language and processes created to upload white settler colonial power and control over what are colonially deemed “natural resources”.


I will also be looking at the devastating impacts of the Elk Valley coal mining operations in so-called British Columbia, and the contamination and damage similar open-pit coal mining projects have brought with them.


As I continue to follow this process, the shapes of contours of the land, as well as the smells, sounds and textures continue to impress and weigh upon me.


Update: I submitted a request to attend the Grassy Mountain Coal Project public hearing and I received notice that I have been approved to attend as an observer.


Screenshot from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada website.





Works Referenced


Alberta Register of Historic Places. Greenhill Mine Complex. Heritage Resource Management Information System website, © 1995 - 2020 Government of Alberta, https://hermis.alberta.ca/ARHP/Details.aspx?DeptID=1&ObjectID=4665-0220.


Anderson, Drew, Robson Fletcher and Jordan Omstead. "Bringing Coal Back." CBC News Interactive. 7 July 2020, http://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/bringing-coal-back.


Fletcher, Robson, and Jordan Olmsted. "Alberta rescinds decades-old policy that banned open-pit coal mines in Rockies and Foothills." CBC News. 22 May 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-coal-policy-rescinded-mine-development-environmental-concern-1.5578902.


Frank Slide facts. Frank Slide Interpretive Centre website, © 2020 Government of Alberta, https://frankslide.ca/sites/frankslide/files/editor_files/Frank_Slide_Facts%20(1).pdf.


Grassy Mountain Coal Project Project Description Summary. Prepared by Millennium EMS Solutions Ltd. on behalf of Riversdale Resources Limited Benga Mining Limited, March 2015. https://www.ceaa.gc.ca/050/documents/p80101/101322E.pdf.


Sander-Green, Lars. Do We Really Need Coal to make Steel? Wildsight, 1 Jun. 2020, https://wildsight.ca/blog/2020/06/01/do-we-really-need-steelmaking-coal.


Tattrie, Jon. Alberta and Confederation. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. 18 Nov. 2014. Revised 22 Jan. 2015, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/alberta-and-confederation.

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