Edmonton

Looking for a lump of coal in Alberta? This mine is your last chance

While there are still five active coal mines in Alberta, only one sells coal to the general public — Dodds Coal Mine, located near the village of Ryley, about 100 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.

Dodds Coal Mine near Ryley is the only one still selling the black stuff to the public

A sign in a prairie field, with the words Dodds Coal Mine.
There are still five active coal mines in Alberta, but only one sells coal to the general public — Dodds Coal Mine, located near Ryley, Alta. (Liam Harrap/CBC)

Barry Wilchiw has hauled coal for decades — coal to heat greenhouses, barns and industrial shops. In winter, it can be mixed with straw and burned to melt frozen ground to build pipelines or dig graves. 

Due to increasing prices and lack of customers, this might be his last year. 

"It basically ends my era of coal. It's a dying thing," Wilchiw said.

He used to truck coal six days a week, but now it's only six days a month. 

"I cannot afford to run my truck with the plates and the insurance and the safety [inspections]. I don't have enough customers to keep it going." 

While Wilchiw no longer uses coal to heat his home near Redwater, Alta., he still uses it to heat the remaining buildings at Thorhild Mine — where he is the caretaker — to stop water pipes from freezing. 

"I never once let my customers down," he said. 

coal mine
Dodds Coal Mine resembles a large gravel pit as the coal is near the ground surface. (Liam Harrap/CBC)

Alberta has a long history with coal. It was the first energy commodity to be exported from the province, starting in the late 1800s.

In the last decade, Alberta has transitioned away from coal. The last two coal-fired electricity generating plants in the province are scheduled to be converted to natural gas by the year's end.

Only about one in 100 Canadian homes use coal as their primary heating source, according to data from the Alberta government.

While there are still five active coal mines in Alberta, the province says only one sells heating coal to the general public — Dodds Coal Mine, near the village of Ryley, about 100 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.

Less than a decade ago, it was common for trucks to line up, waiting to be filled with coal, said Dave Bowal, the manager at Dodds Coal Mine. Now, there might only be a handful of customers each day.

"When I first started taking over the coal mine from my parents, I had a dream that my kids would maybe take it over," he said.

"But it doesn't look like it's going to be a chance for them to take it over."

Carbon tax impact 

The mine has been in his family since the 1950s.  Areas of the mine where there isn't active extraction, has been turned into farmland for growing canola, wheat and barley. 

Man in coal mine
Dave Bowal, manager at Dodds Coal Mine. The mine has been in his family since the 1950s. (Liam Harrap/CBC)

While the price of coal itself has not significantly increased in recent years, its become vastly more expensive to buy, largely due to the federal carbon levy.

At the Dodds mine, coal costs around $50 per tonne before the carbon tax, which adds another $115 to the total.

We get a tour of the last coal mine that sells to the general public in Alberta.

This winter, when CBC News visited the mine, a customer bought almost $7,000 worth of coal, but $4,600 of that went toward the carbon tax.

Since 2020, the carbon tax has cost the mine's customers an additional $8 million, according to Bowal. 

The carbon levy on low heat value coal is scheduled to increase April 1 of this year to about $142 per tonne, so that a tonne of coal from the Dodds mine will cost closer to $200.

Who buys coal? 

Customers travel from all over to Dodds, said Bowal. Some come from as far away as northern B.C. and Manitoba. 

Some are pensioners, unable to pay the costs of converting to another energy source. 

"They come in with 200 bucks and they're hoping that's going to last until they can scrounge up some more money to come back," said Bowal. 

coal plant.
Dodds Coal Mine offers three types of heating coal. (Liam Harrap/CBC)

Occasionally someone from China will call, looking for 100,000 tonnes of coal, he said, but as his mine only produces 20,000 tonnes of heating coal per year, it doesn't have the capacity to fill the order. 

One time, Bowal sent coal to Scotland to heat a castle.  

Currently there are no plans to close Alberta's remaining coal mines, according to an email from the office of Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean.

While Bowal said the Dodds mine will stay open for as long as it's profitable, he worries that if it did close, some people would be left in the cold. 

"We have an abundance of coal in Alberta," he said. 

"It seems to be a waste to just leave it when we can use it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Harrap

Reporter

Liam Harrap is a journalist at CBC Edmonton. He likes to find excuses to leave the big city and chase rural stories. Send story tips to him at liam.harrap@cbc.ca.

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