Mountaintop removal threatens traditional Blackfoot territory

Stop the Grassy Mountain coal project before it starts.


Mountaintop removal mining in British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains.
Callum Gunn
My grandmother lived to be 97 years old. Throughout her life, she went to the Rocky Mountains and their foothills to gather plants for Blackfoot ceremonies, medicine and food. Every day, at sunrise and sunset, she prayed to the divine. Never in her life did she worry if the mountains or the plants would be there. It was a given.

Today, the Rocky Mountains that lie within Blackfoot traditional territory are threatened with mountaintop removal. The Grassy Mountain coal project in Alberta, Canada, is slated to begin coal extraction in fall 2021. It is expected to be profitable for only 25 years. However, by then the almost 4,000-acre project will have blasted the terrain with explosives, separating the substrata from the coal and creating a new rock-scape the size of almost 3,000 American football fields.

When this happens, where will Blackfoot grandmothers go for plants?

Never in her life did she worry if the mountains or the plants would be there. It was a given.

As an ethnobotanist trained by my grandmother, as well as by an environmental studies professor, I believe the Grassy Mountain project should be stopped before it begins. Places where mountaintop coal removal occurs are never the same; just look at West Virginia, where mountain areas once rich with biodiverse forests have been reduced to barren desolation. And, as my grandmother taught me, disturbed areas are not places to practice Blackfoot traditional knowledge.

The Alberta foothills and Rocky Mountains have been off-limits to open-pit coal mining since 1976. However, Alberta surprised the public by withdrawing this policy last June, thereby opening the region to coal development. A federal joint-review panel held a public hearing in November. Final deliberations, and possible approval of the project, are expected this summer.

Alberta argued that its coal policy was “obsolete.” Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon stated in a news release that Alberta was “striking the balance of ensuring strong environmental protection with providing industry with incentive to increase investment.” Locals worry about potential water and air pollution and their effects on human health. But on a global scale, the most serious long-term impacts will be on the growing climate crisis. Several other Rocky Mountain coal projects are also waiting for approval.

The Grassy Mountain project has been in the works for five years. During that time, Australia’s Riverdale Resources contacted tribal leadership, including the Piikani and Kainai nations, both Blackfoot tribes, as required by Canadian law. Riverdale also sought letters of support for the project, which the operators got in exchange for minor considerations.

There is some local support for the project because of its potential opportunities for employment and economic growth. A growing number of Blackfoot and Indigenous people in both Canada and the U.S., however, oppose it, because of concern over potential environmental degradation, pollution and curtailed access to traditional natural landscapes. There are also fears about the fossil fuel industry’s connection to the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis in Canada and the U.S.

Concerned citizens do not need to travel far to see examples of the desecration they fear.

The British Columbia side of the Rocky Mountains has five large mountaintop removal operations. Areas near the mines and downstream from them have experienced selenium pollution, in addition to landscape desecration. Selenium in high levels is toxic: In British Columbia, government studies have shown that it has contaminated and deformed fish and polluted local water supplies.

Downstream and across the border, the state of Montana is taking action. Recently, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality passed new environmental regulations to lower the amount of selenium in Montana waters flowing from Canada.

Meanwhile, the unreclaimed mined landscape in British Columbia looks like a moonscape.

It is these kinds of issues local citizens and Indigenous people hope to avoid by stopping the Grassy Mountain project.

It is these kinds of issues local citizens and Indigenous people hope to avoid by stopping the Grassy Mountain project.

Young Kainai citizens who believe that the mountains are their ancestors are organizing to stop the Grassy Mountain project through a new grassroots Indigenous environmental justice group, the Niitsitapi Water Protectors. They fear that their communities will experience the same human health and environmental degradation issues that they have seen in other Indigenous communities in the Rocky Mountains.

The Niitsitapi Water Protectors argue that even though tribal leadership was contacted years ago about the Grassy Mountain project, the community at large did not know about the coal project until the public hearing in November.

I applaud these kinds of community efforts and Indigenous-led environmental justice groups. We need to address the potential risks, and permanent impacts, of coal extraction on our Blackfoot land.

In 1895, Blackfeet leader White Calf famously lamented, “Chief Mountain is my head. Now my head is cut off,” after the U.S. government swindled the tribe, taking the mountain away.

Now, Grassy Mountain, just 100 kilometers north, is slated to face immeasurable violence. Its head, and our Blackfoot way of life, might literally be cut off.   

Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet/Métis), Ph.D., is an award-winning Indigenous writer, ethnobotanist and environmental activist. She is an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana and a research associate at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Note: The caption on the photo has been corrected. The mine shown is in British Columbia, not Alberta.

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