Third-generation Alberta farmer David Andrews and his wife had always dreamed of passing along their land and family cattle business to their son.
But the Andrews’ land and home falls within the boundary of a planned $1.5-billion coal-fired power plant and accompanying coal strip-mine.
Fording Coal Ltd. and ENMAX Corp. intend to apply to provincial energy regulators in May to build the project near Brooks, east of Calgary.
If the development is approved, the strip-mine will eventually cover 28 square kilometres.
The mine’s huge mechanical draglines will, in time, consume the Andrews’ farm and home. Some of their neighbours, clustered in a close-knit rural community around the hamlet of Bow City, about 20 kilometres southwest of Brooks, face the same situation.
Andrews says that just the thought of the coal mine has changed the way he looks at his land, and his family’s future.
“There’s no joy in making an improvement . . . when you know that it’s going to get dumped and thrown in a hole,” he says.
“That just takes all the impetus away from you for making things better.”
Andrews and his neighbours have banded together to form the Bow City Landowners Protection Committee.
The group has drafted a set of guidelines and principles that they would like Fording Coal to follow in acquiring their land. Essentially, they want the option of being bought out sooner rather than later if the power plant and mine go ahead, so they can start anew someplace else.
“There are several people who will have to be relocated, and many families will be displaced because of this (project),” says Susanne Brummelhuis, a member of the landowners’ group.
Brummelhuis says the coal mine won’t need her family’s home and grain farm located near the Bow River.
But by 2005, the mining operation will be next door to their property, with the power plant two kilometres away.
Dermot Lane, a spokesman for Fording Coal, says the company is sensitive to the feelings of families who will have to move from land they’ve lived and worked on, sometimes for generations.
“Understandably, it’s a very emotional and very trying situation for the local people. It’s not easy. We have to work through this step by step,” he says.
But Lane says that it makes sense, both economically and in terms of energy efficiency, to build the 1,000-megawatt power plant and coal mine in the area.
There are about 35 families, including 10 in the hamlet of Bow City, who will either have to sell their farmland for the strip-mine or will have to live next door to the industrial operation at some point, Brummelhuis says.
Everyone facing that change of community and quality of life should have the option of being bought out, she and other landowners believe.
The Bow City Landowners Protection Committee has hired a well-known Calgary environmental lawyer, Gavin Fitch, to help represent their case.
Fitch recently represented residents who negotiated a deal with Imperial Oil Limited to sell their homes and move from Lynnview Ridge in southeast Calgary.
Imperial Oil’s refinery, once located on the site, had contaminated the soil in the redeveloped residential area with unacceptably high levels of lead and hydrocarbons.
Demand for electricity in the province is greatest in southern Alberta. And there are at least 165 million tonnes of low-sulphur, readily accessible coal in the Brooks area – enough to fuel the power plant for 50 years.
Almost all of southern Alberta’s electricity is now transmitted on high-voltage lines from coal-fired generating plants west of Edmonton.
But this system is inefficient. A lot of the electricity is lost in being carried over such long distances.
The new generating plant near Brooks would be close to where the power is most needed, Lane says. It would save money in transmission costs, and be able to quickly provide electricity to the provincial power grid during peak demand times.
The Town of Brooks and the County of Newell generally support the project, because of the added tax revenue, the job creation and other economic spinoffs.
Preparing the site and building the first 500-megawatt generating unit would take three years. That would be followed in a year by the second unit.
With both units up and running, the power plant and mine will provide about 250 highly skilled, full-time jobs.
Lane says that when it comes to acquiring land for the coal mine, Fording Coal’s preferred position is that “we don’t want to go in there and buy all the land up in one fell swoop.”
Not all the land will be required immediately, because the coal strip-mine will gradually expand in stages over 35 to 40 years, he says.
An immediate buyout for everyone would greatly increase the $1.5-billion cost of the project, which “already faces significant hurdles with the fact that it’s a new mine and a new power plant,” Lane adds.
He also points out that each local resident’s situation is unique.
A few farmers are nearing retirement and they probably aren’t worried about selling. Other farmers might choose to remain in the community, since the coal mine won’t need their land for 20 years or more, he says.
And in some cases, only parts of some farmers’ land will be required, so they might also decide to stay.
“The idea that one shoe fits all, I don’t think will work,” Lane says.
Fording Coal also would prefer to not buy out people whose land isn’t needed, even though they’ll have the mine or power plant as a neighbour.
But Brummelhuis says that she and her neighbours now live in a peaceful agricultural community.
“It’s a nice neighbourhood and a very nice community, and that will all change,” she says. “It’s people’s dreams that they’re dealing with.”
Lane says before Fording makes any decision about acquiring land, the company wants to ensure all the residents are fully informed about the timing of the coal-mining operation and how each stage will affect them.
“We’d like to try to reach amicable agreements if we could for all purchases.”
If that isn’t possible, then the emotionally charged issue will likely have to be decided at an anticipated Alberta Energy and Utilities Board public hearing. Fording Coal has already held open houses in the community, and is preparing reports on the predicted noise and dust from the mine, and air emissions from the plant.
The company is also doing a study on the potential risks to public health from the project.
But those issues aren’t uppermost in the mind of David Andrews, whose parents still live in the community and whose son and his wife had planned to make it their permanent home.
Not anymore, he says.
“I know every rock and hill,” Andrews says.
“Every time you’d walk across the place, you’d think, ‘Oh, well, that won’t be here.’ We just can’t stand that.”