Greenhill Mining Complex: "It's Yours" | Part 1
Disturbance can renew ecologies as well as destroy them.
- Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom At the End of the World
Standing at the Greenhill Mine Complex in the Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, I look at the abandoned buildings, coal carts and pieces of machinery left behind, evidence of the coal mining operation that was here only 50 years ago. I wonder why this supposed historical site was left neglected while others like Leitch Colleries were preserved, if only to develop tourist attractions that serve to commemorate white settler colonial narratives and impress the logics of extractive capitalism on people and the land. Some would say that we have stricter rules in place for industry to remediate mine sites today but as I outline below, the regulations for the mining industry, or rather lack thereof, do not do enough to protect the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and humans.
This is one of 61 sites deemed to be of significance or note that fall into the Grassy Mountain Coal Project's proposed permit boundary. The Greenhill Mine was operated by Western Canadian Colleries from 1913 until sometime between 1957-1961. In the late 1940s, the company also operated a strip surface mine nearby on Grassy Mountain, where massive coal seams referred to as "the big show" can be found. Coal from the surface mine would have been brought to the tipple at the Greenhill Mine Complex to be processed.
Though I have not been to the summit of Grassy Mountain, which I am not sure is still accessible with the current mining proposal in development, there are images documenting the coal seams and the beautiful mountain landscape. This is where the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, an open-pit metallurgical coal mine is being proposed to be in operation from 2021-2042 by Benga Mining, a subsidiary of Riversdale Resources Ltd. According to the company's 2015 Project Description document prepared for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency which can be found here, "a total of 60 wildlife species at risk may potentially occur on or near Grassy Mountain: four amphibian species, two reptile species, 11 mammal species, and 42 bird species" (52). These at-risk species include grizzly bear, Canada lynx, bobcat, bald eagle, golden eagle, great gray owl, western toad, hoary bat, little brown myotis, bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, and more. In a time of climate and ecological crisis, when we have choices to make about protecting wildlife, lands and watersheds, how can we envision a return to coal mining for the future of this place?
Westslope Cutthroat Trout: A Canary in the Coal Mine
One doesn't have to look very far to see the devastation open-pit coal mining has already brought to the Rocky Mountains. Teck Resources Elk Valley mining operations in colonially named British Columbia has led to selenium contamination of the Elk River watershed and across international borders into the Lake Koocanusa watershed in colonially named Montana. High selenium levels in the water have resulted in deformities and reproductive failure in fish, including westslope cutthroat trout, an at-risk species in Alberta and British Columbia. In 2015, the westslope cutthroat trout occupied only five percent of its historic range, in Alberta (Douglas 22) and the westslope cutthroat trout is still listed as threatened today. Five years ago, the federal government declared rivers and streams in the Oldman watershed critical habitat for the endangered trout under the Species At Risk Act. Though the recovery plan was deemed insufficient to protect or recover the westslope cutthroat trout by the Alberta Wilderness Association, the 2019 proposed recovery strategy and action plan for the westslope cutthroat trout identified Gold Creek (located just south of Grassy Mountain), as a critical habitat for the trout.
With an inadequate recovery strategy and little action being taken to recover the westslope cutthroat trout or protect the waterways that will be impacted, the proposed Grassy Mountain Coal Project continues to move forward. The deformities found in and population decline of the westslope cutthroat trout, serve as a warning of the devastating impacts that the Grassy Mountain Coal Project will bring to the Crowsnest Pass.
While government departments and newly formed workgroups work to develop selenium criteria and conceptual modelling frameworks to address the most extensive selenium poisoning that either country has ever seen, the Ktunaxa Nation Council, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe called for lower selenium standards for the Koocanusa watershed to be implemented. The First Nations asked for a selenium criteria of 1,5 micrograms per liter to be implemented. The new criteria is set to be established this year. The letter from the three First Nations also states that there has been a lack of meaningful participation with First Nations on the part of the working group tasked with monitoring and researching the selenium poisoning in the region.
Meanwhile, the mining continues and the selenium poisoning will have long-lasting impacts on the environment that future generations will be left to grapple with. Ric Hauer, a University of Montana professor outlines the extent of the damage, “It will persist for tens of generations. This is not something that 50 years from now we can simply clean up and wipe our hands from” (Scott). It is deeply unsettling to think that in 50 years, when the Elk Valley mining operations have ceased that its destructive impacts will continue and that people will still be dealing with the impacts for generations to come.
It's Yours | Alberta's Environment
I picked up a pin at a thrift store in Mohkinstsis a few years ago. I am not sure who made it, if it was a part of an Alberta Environment and Parks campaign or another effort to encourage people to spend time outdoors. It shows an image of a landscape with the sky, mountains, forest, and water. "It's Yours" is written above and "Alberta's Environment" is written below. A simple message that may seem benign. The environment: it exists for you. You deserve it. It is a message that settler Canadians, particularly white settler Canadians, are so used to seeing and hearing that the insidious intent may remain hidden. Seemly an innocent message about human connection to and enjoyment of the landscape, it can also be read as a message of possession and entitlement exemplifying the colonial mindset rooted in white supremacy, capitalism, and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their land and life way. Yes, this pin might be about getting outside and enjoying Alberta's parks but the parks system in what is now known as Canada is part of the violent and ongoing process of maintaining settler colonial control of land.
If you are interested in learning more, this article by Wacey Little Light and poster by Nancy Kimberley Phillips, part of a project by the Graphic History Collective critically examines the history of Canada's parks and the deployment of conservation as a tool used to justify the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples from the land.
Across what is now known as Canada, the landscape is upheld by settler Canadians as a place to revere, connect, identify with, idealize, and preserve. At the same time, the land is also a natural resource for human use, pleasure, and consumption, destroying the very landscapes that we seek to preserve.
Cognitive dissonance must be practiced at all times otherwise we might imagine new life ways on the land, ones that don't mark it with straight lines, disrupting the migration paths of wildlife, cutting down trees, removing mountaintops, and polluting waterways. Even the term natural resources implies that all that is naturally occurring within the earth’s ecosystem from the elements to the atmosphere, can be viewed as materials or components for human exploitation, use, cultivation, and consumption. How else would English, a Eurocentric language, rooted in white supremacy and colonial occupation describe the earth but in capitalist, consumption-driven terms?
Disturbance is naturally occurring within these cycles but what types of disturbances do we control and perpetuate? In her book, The Mushroom At the End of the World, Anna Lowenhurst Tsing tells us that there is no one method of measuring disturbance, that “disturbance matters in relation to how we live” (161). How do we want to live? Do we want to continue to leave contamination and pollution in our land, air and water for the next generations to come?
The Grassy Mountain coal mine is referred to as a "disturbance area" throughout the project description. Disturbance is part of the common language of resource extraction and settler colonization. Who sets the threshold for disturbance? What perspectives are we actually valuing and considering in our processes that are meant to protect and address environmental destruction and degradation that resource extraction brings?
Perhaps we no longer comprehend the troubling realities evidenced in the world as we should be. How many warnings will it take for us to consider new ways of living? To stop new fossil fuel projects? We know that landscapes are not idealized images; like relationships, they are living, ever-changing, moving, and messy. They are alive with the cycles of life and death and they have many inhabitants that create complex networks of support, conflict, and survival.
Tsing reminds us that “disturbance requires awareness of the observer’s perspective" (161). Finding ways to care for damaged landscapes caused by human activity and prevent the need for remediation in the first place is not just going to take acknowledging perspectives but transforming the processes in which it takes place. Working groups that work within settler colonial systems rooted in racism and white supremacy and capitalism that serve to support extractive industries will not work. The cycles of destruction will only continue as the stakes get higher for future generations and the earth.
What can we learn from disturbance? What emerges from it? As I wander the Greenhill Mine Complex, I begin to notice a plant that thrives in disturbed areas. It reappears again and again in the coal slags leaps. I wonder where this plant is taking me.
Aitken, Gary, Leonard Gray (signing for Ron Trahan) and Kathryn Teneese. "Letter from the Councils of the Ktunaxa Nations to Hon. George Hayman, Gov. Bullock and Gov. Otter regarding the health and protection of fish species in the Koocanusa Reservoir." 2019. https://1qb1ow3qfudf14kwjzalxq61-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Joint-Councils_Selenium-Criteria-Letter-and-Memo_2019.pdf.
The Alberta Westslope Cutthroat Trout Recovery Team. 2013. Alberta Westslope Cutthroat Trout Recovery Plan: 2012 to 2017. Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Alberta Species at Risk Recovery Plan No. 28. Edmonton, AB. 77 pp. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/species-risk-public-registry/recovery/westslope-cutthroat-trout-2019-proposed.html.
Dempster, Allison. "Coal mining revival in Crowsnest Pass eyed by Australian company." CBC News Calgary. 29 Sep 2014. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/coal-mining-revival-in-crowsnest-pass-eyed-by-australian-company-1.2781083.
Douglas, Nigel. "Species At Risk Westslope Cutthroat Trout." Wild Lands Advocate. Alberta Wilderness Association. Oct. 2015: 23-5. Print.
Millennium EMS Solutions Ltd. on behalf of Riversdale Resources Limited Benga Mining Limited. Grassy Mountain Coal Project Project Description Summary. Prepared for and published on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency website. March 2015. https://www.ceaa.gc.ca/050/documents/p80101/101322E.pdf.
Scott, Tristan. "Koocanusa Concentrations Exceed New Selenium Standard." The Flathead Beacon. Jul 19 2016, https://flatheadbeacon.com/2016/07/19/koocanusa-concentrations-exceed-new-selenium-standard.
Skrajny, Joanna on behalf of the Alberta Wilderness Association. "AWA Letter: Westslope Cutthroat Trout Recovery Strategy and Action Plan." Alberta Wilderness Association. 10 Jul 2019. https://albertawilderness.ca/awa_dfo_wsct_rsap/.
Tsing, Anna L. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2012. Print.
Weber, Bob. "Ottawa declares proposed Alberta coal mine site endangered trout habitat." The Globe and Mail. 2 Dec. 2015. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/alberta/ottawa-declares-proposed-alberta-coal-mine-site-endangered-trout-habitat/article27571074/.
Williams, Chole. "From Canadian Coal Mines, Toxic Pollution That Knows No Borders." Yale Environment 360. Published at the Yale School of the Environment. 19 Apr. 2019. https://e360.yale.edu/features/from-canadian-coal-mines-toxic-pollution-that-knows-no-borders.