The long black streaks in the hills along Highway 40 outside Grande Cache, Alta., are a clear sign of the rich coal seams that run through the eastern slopes of the Rockies there.
The community, about 430 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, was established in the 1960s to serve the mine that still pulls coal out of the ground outside town. The volatile coal industry has fuelled the local economy from the beginning.
In recent years as coal fired power plants were phased out across Alberta, the future of the town’s existing mine became more uncertain. The local power plant was converted from coal to primarily natural gas in 2019.
Only the continued demand for metallurgical coal to make steel overseas has kept the mine going. There is now a proposal to build a new mine in the area to produce more coal for steel making, a project that has some people in Grande Cache thinking twice.
The Summit 14 mine, proposed by Maxim Power, would be built on Grande Mountain which looms large over Grande Cache.
Fears for tourism, pollution
The potential mine site is also visible through the trees of Jules Desrocher’s camp ground and trail riding business.
“The haul road is going to come across what we are looking at — right on Grande Mountain,” he says, pointing to the potential mine site in the distance.
Desrocher worries tourists will stop coming to enjoy the natural beauty of the area if there is a coal mine overlooking his operation.
The Metis entrepreneur also has concerns about what the mine will mean for drinking water in the area.
Desrocher, who also works part time in the oil and gas sector, is quick to point out that he is not anti-industry. But he says there are too many unknowns when it comes to the new mine proposal.
‘A good thing for the town of Grande Cache tax wise’
In Grande Cache, at a packed open house about the proposed mine held in July, questions about its environmental impact are top of mind for many in attendance.
Maxim Power, the company pitching the new project, says that the mine will be underground, meaning local water will be more protected than in a surface mine.
Kyle Mitton of Maxim Power adds that the company has to do “the environmental monitoring and demonstrate that this will be a responsible operation,” before it is given the green light to build the mine by the province.
If the company does receive the permits it needs, the mine could be producing metallurgical coal by the end of next year.
“This is a good thing for the town of Grande Cache tax wise — to keep the town going,” Yakielashek says.
Project could create 120 new jobs
The Alberta government had flirted with the idea of opening several new metallurgical mines in the province in recent years. However, strong public opposition forced most of the projects to be shelved.
The Summit 14 mine was the exception, grandfathered because it had been in the works since 2008.
“There are multiple approval steps remaining for this project but its approval would provide economic security for the Grande Cache area,” said a spokesperson for the Alberta Ministry of Energy and Minerals.
The local Chamber of Commerce agrees, noting that bringing, “employment for an estimated 120 workers into the Grande Cache economy would be great.”
But if the mine is built it would alter the landscape of Grande Mountain, and some worry it could impact the area’s budding tourism sector.
‘Something special about this area’
Gina Goldie, who grew up in Grande Cache, started her river rafting company in the area 25 years ago. “There is just something special about this area, it is just so quiet and serene and beautiful,” she says.
Like many people from Grande Cache, Goldie is conflicted about the new mine, recognizing the environmental risks but also aware of the economic benefits.
“So in an ideal world we are not using coal mines anymore — but we don’t live in that world, we are at the precipice of serious climate problems and so how do we solve those — that is a very big complex problem.”
Goldie is most worried about the reclamation of the mine site once it is done producing coal. She also has concerns about the ability for regulators to make sure the site is cleaned up.
Still, she says the fact that the mine is producing coal for steel manufacturing, and not electricity production, is an important distinction, since there are currently no viable alternatives.
“There has got to be a balance struck between preservation of our natural areas and use of our natural resources and I think that is the challenge,” Goldie says.
Goldie points out that the steel produced from Grande Cache’s coal seams could be used to build wind turbines or electric cars, key pieces to decarbonizing the planet and addressing climate change.
As the Summit 14 mine continues to move its way through the approval process, people in the area say they’re wrestling with how the coal industry and the environment can coexist, unearthing no easy answers — only hard questions about the future of their town.