Lethbridge Herald, The (Newspaper) - September 17, 1970, Lethbridge, Alberta
20 THE LEHTBRIDGE HERALD Thuriday, September 17, 1970 Kaiser Resources: Boon Or Disaster? WhafsHapperdng: rr; The Crowsnest Pass coal basin covers just 231) square miles but il is one of the largest and richest deposits of coking coal in a world crying for more and more fuel to drive its burgeoning steel industry. The most economical way to remove the coal is to use strip-mining techniques in which the soil and rock cov- ering the -oal seam often to 500 .feet deep, are sim- ply lifted off by massive ma- chines, and the coal is then removed by other massive machines. Coal mining lias been the economic mainstay for Crowsnest residents since about 1899 but it wasn't until Kaiser Steel, a giant United States industrial conglomer- ate decided to form a Cana- dian subsidiary, Kaiser Re- sources, that 'Pass coal mining really became eco- nomical without government subsidies. Kaiser spent more than million to get its mine at Sparwood, B.C. (near Na- tal-Michel) in operation, and will likely have to spend another million to become completely established. But its prize is a billion- plus contract with Japanese manufacturers, signed in 1968 and 1969. The contract involves a minimum of six million tons of coal per year for 15 years and the like- lihood of an indefinite exten- sion of the contract for sim- ilar amounts. Other contracts may add a further two million tons annually. Several other companies have also moved into the Japanese supply business notably Cominco. which has a 30 million ton, million contract for the same 15 year period. Most of the coal for these companies also comes from the Crowsnest area. And the area will support these mines almost literally forever: estimates of its re- serves start at two billion tons. Wilderness associations In Alberta and B.C. have be- come increasingly critical of the strip mining operations as have many ecologists ant! other scientists. They say the operations will permanently destroy the trees and other plants in the region, pollute the streams and perhaps have even more disastrous effects. The companies counter with full-scale reclamation plans, already underway at Kaiser. To see what the situation is The Herald took four Univer sity of Lethbridge scientists to have a !ook, with full co operation from Kaiser Re sources: here are the results. Stories and Photos By Jim Wilson GIGANTIC OPERATION-Strip-mining does every- thing in a big way. This is the Kaiser Resources surface mine on the Harrrier Ridge a mounfaintop operation feet high covering the entire region. At the left is the massive walking dragline, a shovel which digs -out 55 cubic yards at one time and Is worth about million. Its boom is 300 feet long, and its cab is larger than a gymnasium. The photo shows it working along one bench, or terrace as it moves backwards (to the left of the It removes the rock and shale overburden from the coal, dropping it on the terrace above where it will be left for a planting surface in reclamation work. When the terrace is finished it will move to the next level below and broadcast the overburden back on the terrace it is now working. Farther right, a jmaller 25-cubic foot shovel can be seen. The other equipment is primarily 100-ton and 200-ton trucks, into which the coal and some overburden Is dumped by the shovels. The larger trucks.are worth about each, and the smaller obout What The Ecologists Say: The million "walking dragline" shovel Trains are loaded from silos What Kaiser Officials Say: INTERVIEWED: Dr. Job Kuijt, chairman of the U of L biology department Dr. Luke Stebbins, assistant pro- fessor of biological sciences and president of the Leth- bridge Alberta Wilderness Association; Dr. Paul Lewis, assistant professor of biologi- cal sciences and a director of Pollution Control Southern Alberta; Dr. Chet Beaty, pro- fessor of geography. Dr. Kuijt who describes Kaiser's plans for reclama- tion as a "pious ex- pects tiie company's existing plans to show little success. He is also critical of Kaiser's public relations statements concerning "what they don't really plan to do. "They have the specific re- sponsibility of determining what was there before they started, and this is where they he said. "Be- fore they started working they should have documented what was there so they knew INTERVIEWED: Ken Don- ald, manager of Kaiser's un- derground irines operations and director of its reclama- tion program. "We're in our infancy in this reclamation business Mr. Donald said and we're learning a lot as we go along. This is natural, because no one has ever done any afforestation work in climes similar tu this or up .to the elevations we're work- ing at, above feet. "No one can really supply us with nursery stock for this area, and that's a problem: who wants to grow nursery seedlings for replanting oil a mountain top? "We're convinced that if we want to plant at eleva- tions of or feet, right at the top of the moun- tain where our open pit is, we'll have to pet our seedling stock from seeds collected at those elevations." Kaiser is currently spend- ing about to prove it can reclaim the mountain it is taKmg coal from, and has employed a forestry biologist named Jerry Seiner to help. It has also established a small nursery in which lire seeds collected at various el- evations will be started, tin- d e r controlled conditions planned to give the plants a start before they are re- planted. "We started an experimen- tal seeding program last year, but we were too late to really give it a chance. This year we got started early, and we've had a very good Mr. Donald said. Much of the nursery this year, nowcvcr, lias been given over to producing ex- perimcnta! plots of various grasses. The remainder is divided into two plots, one for coniferous trees suc'n as lir and pine and the other for deciduous trees such as black locust (poplarj. "The deciduous trees arc what will give us the fastest Mr. Donald said. "They the fastest root system and sonre, such as black locust, are known as excellent spoil pile planters so we hold them as our top possibility. "Conifers are the more ma- ture growth and once we have a root system establish- ed by other growth we'll swing over to them, which will complete the job. "We'll collect seeds for tnese trees tms fall. "This fall we also plan to plant some deciduous and cornier seedlings on some of the old spoil piles up to about feet, and this fall and next spring we'll plant our own nursery trees in the Elk- view (plantsite) and Michel areas." The company has also done extensive hydroseeding work, which involves mixing var- ious grass clover and other seeds in a mulch of moss or wood fibre, putting it in a water and fertilizer solution and spraying it on the ground from tank trucks or planes. Mr. Donald said many of the experimental hydroseed- ing areas have shown good results, with significant parts returning after the winter. However, almost all of this work has been done at or near the valley floor. Clover, buckwheat and crown vetch grass have been the most successfully hydro- seeded foliage. The company expects to know if it has been success- ful in the valley by next sum- Mr, but won't know about the higher elevations lor a num- ber of years. The strip-mining system uses a massive dragline scoop shovel which lifts 53 cubic yards at once, moving in horizontal lines across the mountainside and creating terraces as it works from top to bottom. It lifts off the thin layer (six inches or less) of soil, then takes out the several hundred feet of rock and shale, and dumps it on the terrace above the ono it is working, in order to expose the coal shich can then be trucked away. It is this rough shale that Kaiser hopes to use as the planting surface for its re- clamation work. "The stuff is mostly fissile shale and when it's exposed to the air it breaks down in about a year and a half into a sort of sandy material" Mr. Donald said. "It's al- ready starting to break down, and next summer we should be able to start planting it "We'll leava the large chunks as they are instead of crushing them, because we'll get much better snow reten- tion that way, which will hold water in the pockets the chunks form. Seeds also gather more readily in those pockets." One problem that exists is the sleep slope of most of the dump piles: water flows ra pidly down them and seeds don't hold. In most cases it is almost impossible to re- duce the slope, so plants with strong root systems that dig deep into the bank are first p 1 a nt e d to stabilize the ground. Then other plants can move in. Mr. Donald said lack of fertility is not a problem most of the spoil piles show rapid growth once some plant life can be established. Kaiser plans to reclaim all of the Crowsnest land it is in- vovled with, even where it was not responsible for the blight: "I don't think we have any choice but to do Mi- Donald said. "We could do the finest job of reclamation in our own area and people would still say we were wreckers, because the valley would look just as bad. "There's no way we could satisfy the public or even ourselves if we didn't also look after the older areas we inherited. And I should point out these include consider ?ble numbers of logging areas as well as mining sites." Kaiser's nursery all types of trees Historic logging roads also a problem what had grown successfully. "I also feel there were bla- tant inconsistencies between what they wers saying a year ago and what they say now. Even their own engineers are now admitting their public statements about reclama- tion were sheer public rela- tions, and I think they're on extremely thin ice when they start to tell us their new plans will succeed. "If they feel there is very little chance for success, they shoxild come out and say so. And I personally see really very little evidence that thera is going to be any success, excpet in a very minor way under very exceptional cir- cumstances. "Even the successes they point out now have to be taken with a grain of salt. First of all they're at low elevations, near the valley floor where conditions are the most favorable. And when they move higher, their planting so far does not take. "The species they're using are small, and usually an- nuals. I wonder how peren- nials are going to work out. The test will really come when we see if the annuals germinate the following year, and when the company starts trying to plant at higher lev- els. "I think it's significant that nothing like these plants grew on top before Kaiser moved in if the stuff was going to grow up there it .would have moved in natural- ly from the valley floor. "Perhaps their best chance would he to pick out a few spots and actually put down some soil, then plant on it to establish some islands of growth that could spread out over the years." Dr. Stebbins viewed the problem as basically one of relandscaping not reforesta- tion: the land must be lev- elled and better-prepared, he said, before any considera- tion is made of planting. "To let the plants and na- ture do the work themselves is a matter similar to re- forestation after a period of glaciation thousands of Dr. Slebbins said. "But they are making an effort, and trying hard to suc- ceed. The B.C. government should be working much more closely with them and contributing its own el- forts and experts, particular- ly if it's as beneficial to B.C. as the government says it is. "They have to do more levelling work, they have to pay more attention to what the material they're using is and perhaps they should reconsider their planting methods. "I think Uiey should invest- gale the possibility of sewage as an obvious factor in in- creasing the fertility of the area. Thore is no reason why sewage from the communi- ties in the area couldn't be collected for use as fertilizer in their replanting work, spread separately or spread a" the liquid part of the hy- droseeding process. "And if they can remove 400 feet of overburden up on top, I think they could put a foot of topsoil back over It without too much effort, to give the plants a chance although I don't know where the soil would come from. "My major concern is the affects on the watershed of such massive ecological pres- sures. While the Kaiser oper- ations are on the other side of the watershed, they could could conceivably move to this side and other com- panies are considering doing so, for coal and copper. "Our life ia Lethbridge in Alberta literally de- pends on water coming from the eastern slopes of the mountains in that area, and massive disruptions could completely destroy the wa- tershed. I speak of the Old- man River, Dutch Cresk, Racehorse Creek, two branches of the West Castle. "The result could be peri- iods of intense flooding fol- lowed by periods of intense drought, with no middle ground." Dr. Lewis says he doubts both the potential success and the sincerity of Kaiser. "You certainly can't swal- low being shown hydroseed- ing successes at low-altitudes and expect them to automat- ically work at .higher eleva- tions, because the atmos- phere, pressure, tempera- ture and precipitation are en- tirely different. "I think the public has to become involved, and gov- ment legislation has to be developed to control the si- tuation. The coal isn't to go anywhere, and nor are the markets. "We should tell them that, when they can prove to us that their reclamation sys- tem will work, then they can go ahead and start taking it out, but until then just wail. "I think Kaiser should be willing io put up more money for research including schol- arships and project funds if they really want us to believe they mean business." Dr. Beaty doubts Kaiser plans more than a minimal reclamation program "be- cause they're in business to mine coal, not to make the landscape beautiful. The job mil he a big one and they won't do any more than they absolutely have to. "Tlie fact that you can see from tiro ai" areas that were abandoned ,0 years ago and are still essentially bare suggests that revegetation must be a pretty slow pro- cess in this area and it could be hundreds of human lifetimes before you see trees of any size at all. "These rocky lumps they expect to use as a planting bed will not decompose very quickly except at the and tile rainfall will flow many feet down through them, carrying away what- ever has decomposed. "It won't leave any soil base or water for plants to grow in at all. "I think its a case of one use for the area coal mining or forests being chosen, and there we seem to have chosen coal mining, so wo can't have forests."