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Crowsnest Pass has not had an operational coal mine for 40 years. Now the struggling community is divided over whether to embrace the resource to save itself

For decades, John Kinnear and his family proudly mined coal from the towering mountains that form the border between Alberta and British Columbia. As a local historian in the nearby community of Crowsnest Pass, he has seen the bounty that coal brought for generations of families.

But he also knows how the country – and world – has soured on the dusty black commodity buried deep within the Rockies, and he has come to understand that point of view. Recently, when he visited Line Creek, a Teck Resources coal mine to the community’s west, he was struck by the desolation left in its wake.

Everything that made the landscape distinct – the alpine flowers below the ridges, the rabbits and mountain sheep – had disappeared.

“Now all I see is shovels, and trucks and mountains being decapitated,” he said. “I’m quite unsettled by it all.”

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Local historian John Kinnear explores the abandoned Hillcrest mine, originally the site of Canada's worst mining disaster in which 189 people died.Kyler Zeleny/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Kinnear and the thousands of residents of Crowsnest Pass – a storied Alberta region of rum runners, communist mayors and cursed gold mines – have found themselves at a crossroads. The community is deeply divided as it struggles to decide the future of the town and its forests and mountain peaks.

On one side of the divide are coal proponents, who say the community needs the jobs new coal mines would bring to town. On the other side are locals who believe the Pass can solve its economic problems without mines, by leveraging the area’s natural bounty in a very different way. The region has world-class fly fishing, mountain biking, skiing, hiking, bouldering, hunting, dirt biking and snowmobiling – and residents increasingly feel the Pass’s future is tied to tourism, which can only be sustained by an intact ecosystem.

Last fall, Alberta revoked a 1976 policy that banned open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The decision was polarizing, pitting the province’s ranchers, country singers and other coal opponents against its conservative government.

This friction was acutely felt in Crowsnest Pass. Although the community has not had an operational coal mine for over 40 years, two nearby abandoned mine sites, Montem Resources’ Tent Mountain and Riverside Mining’s Grassy Mountain, were in the process of reopening before the policy change. The provincial government’s move thrust those projects into the limelight, making them subjects of intense public debate.

The controversy over the mines has thrown their future into doubt. Grassy Mountain was recently denied approval to begin mining by both federal and provincial regulators.

The simmering feud over whether to permit new mines has turned residents against each other: both the fuel tanks of mining trucks and the vehicles of outdoor-sports enthusiasts have been vandalized in recent months.

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The proposed mine site at Tent Mountain lies a few kilometres beyond the community of West Coleman, one of five communities in the region that make up the special municipal region known as Crowsnest Pass.Kyler Zeleny/The Globe and Mail

Thermal coal, which is used to generate electricity and heat, is being phased out by governments around the world because of its outsized contribution to climate change. But metallurgical coal, which is used to produce steel and cement, remains in high demand, with viable green alternatives decades away from being widely usable.

The coal deposits found near Crowsnest Pass are metallurgical. Coal boosters in the community are convinced they’re living atop a resource the world desperately needs.

For generations, coal companies were the largest employers in the region, and they were responsible for a decades-long economic boom. But the extraction of coal from deep within the earth came at a heavy cost.

In 1903, a disaster known as the Frank Slide partly blanketed the town under 110 million tons of rock. Nearly a decade later, another tragic mishap, the Hillcrest disaster, killed 189 miners. Throughout the 1970s, residents struggled to keep their laundry clean, according to fly-fishing shop owner Vic Bergman, because coal dust fell daily from the sky. Even today, people wash the coal dust off their houses in the Pass’s West Coleman area.

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Top, Old miners and other community members meet for their daily coffee at the Coleman Legion. Below, Mayor of Crowsnest Pass Blair Painter, who was elected on his pro-mining position.Kyler Zeleny/The Globe and Mail

Nearly 400 Crowsnest Pass residents still commute over the border to B.C. each day to work in mines.

But the gradual closure of key mines has left the region with little hope. The community’s old-timers, who meet most mornings at the Coleman Legion, sip their coffee and discuss the growing number of vacant storefronts and shuttered local businesses.

Officials worry that, without a major industrial project, the community’s prospects are getting dimmer each year.

Although some residents are adamant the community is thriving, a number of socioeconomic factors suggest it is in crisis. Without a key industry, the local government has to draw over three-quarters of its budget from its residential tax base. Fifty per cent of the population makes less than $50,000 a year.

While the community registered a small increase in population last year, the local school reported fewer students. The average resident is 53 years old, up from 46 in 2016. Just across the border in the mining community of Elkford, the average is 38. In Toronto, it’s 40.

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Lisa Sygutek, a local town councillor and owner of the Crowsnest Pass Herald newspaper, sees coal as a way to solve these issues. But she said she understands that coal production in the Pass is unlikely to go forward.

The town’s mayor, Blair Painter, made a particularly blunt assessment of the situation. “Our future is pretty bleak without industry,” he said.

Across the border in British Columbia, the communities of Fernie and Kimberley have cast aside their legacies as mining towns and embraced outdoors-focused tourism. The efforts have seen some success: Kimberley, which faced possible economic collapse after its mine closed in 2001, was recently voted the best small town in B.C. in a CBC poll.

Susan Douglas-Murray is a longtime resident and local business owner in Crowsnest Pass. Kyler Zeleny/The Globe and Mail
The Crowsnest River, which is highly regarded for its fly-flshing, flows through Frank Slide and into the Oldman River before joining the Oldman River Reservoir. Kyler Zeleny/The Globe and Mail

Some imagine the Pass will be able to do the same, transforming itself into a hub for tourism and retirement, similar to other post-resource towns like Whitefish in Montana, or Canmore or Drumheller in Alberta.

But the pursuit of tourism dollars has residents worried that an influx of people could change the fabric of the community – and make life too expensive for locals. The highway that runs through town is already congested on weekends with people driving through to B.C.

Pro-coal members of the community argue that coal innovation, rather than elimination, is what can stabilize the Pass. Carmen Linderman, a member of a local group called Citizens Supportive of Crowsnest Coal, said Canada’s stringent labour and environmental laws make domestic coal an ethical alternative to coal mined in authoritarian countries like Russia and China.

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Members of the Citizens Supportive of Crowsnest Coal group on the Crowsnest Pass Golf Course, which was donated by Riverside Resources, a company that owns one of the proposed mine sites in Crowsnest Pass.Kyler Zeleny/The Globe and Mail

Although Ms. Linderman and other members of the group acknowledge that coal mining contributes to climate change, they say reopening the two mines in the Pass would benefit the local environment by incentivizing the sites’ owners to find ways of stopping the constant flow of toxic coal runoff into nearby waterways. Each mine is located at a different headwaters, both of which drain into the Oldman Reservoir.

Ms. Linderman worries tourism would provide only seasonal, transient and low-paying jobs.

“They’ve had 40 years to develop tourism, and it hasn’t come across,” she said.

Other locals have expressed fear that an influx of newcomers would push them out of the region and diminish the community’s coal-mining heritage. Tourism could save the town while transforming it beyond recognition.

Coal is piled at the site of the old collieries, south of West Coleman. Kyler Zeleny/The Globe and Mail

One community member who is hoping for a tourism-centric future is Heather Davis, who owns a local tour guide company. She said she is skeptical of the mining industry’s ability to limit pollutants in the area. This is a problem wherever coal is mined: in March, a B.C. court fined Teck Resources $60-million for allowing metallurgical coal mines in the province’s Elk Valley to pollute waterways.

Crowsnest Pass’s council is exploring the idea of attracting tech-sector workers and companies who may be looking to embrace a mountain lifestyle. But attracting businesses is not easy, especially in a semi-remote community with a housing vacancy rate lower than that of Toronto.

If the federal or provincial governments wish to limit or stop the development of coal to reduce emissions and address environmental concerns, some residents say, rural communities should be helped to transition, not left behind.

If governments are trying to [cut carbon], then I think it should fall hand in hand as some sort of rebate … I think it’s a fair thing,” said Susan Douglas-Murray, a local business owner and anti-coal advocate.

Mr. Painter agrees. “It’s our government’s responsibility to look after communities that are struggling,” he said.

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Brent Koinberg, local flyfishserman and heavy duty mechanic, grew up in Crowsnest Pass, and calls the land home.Kyler Zeleny/The Globe and Mail

In 2018, the federal government introduced the Canada Coal Transition Initiative, a $35-million pot of funding for coal-transition programs in communities across the country.

With the Grassy and Tent Mountain mines stalled, and the federal government pledging to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, many in the community are betting against a return to coal. Even coal companies are changing gears. Montem Resources is now actively exploring a renewable energy project on the Tent Mountain site. The company estimates that a renewable hydrogen project could create 40 to 50 jobs over a period of 80 years, as opposed to a projected 150 jobs over 13 years for a coal mine.

Brent Koinberg, a Crowsnest local who owns an outdoor tour company, has complicated feelings about the community’s future. He used to work for Teck Resources.

“Growing up in the Pass was great,” he said. “We’d all meet up or take the bikes out in the bush, or we’d just run into the bush. This land has been home for me.”

“We weren’t rich, but we were rich in experience,” he said. “But as you get older and you need a job. There’s very little industry, so you have to leave.”

As he danced a fly in the waters of the Crowsnest River, angling for the region’s prized trout, Turtle Mountain towered overhead. He admitted he wants both: the security of industry and an untouched ecosystem.

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