Bighorn Mining temporarily shut down its operation on Friday, Feb. 5, resulting in the potential loss of a reported 300 jobs.
Bighorn, also known as Coalspur Mines Operations Ltd, did not comment for this story and did not confirm that the temporary layoff of 300 workers is related to an ongoing amendment application for tailings ponds within Phase 1 of the current mine site.
However, the company did state in a Jan. 27 letter to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) that it may shut down operations if a quick resolution could not be found.
“As the AER is aware, Coalspur recently submitted an application to extend the life of McPherson Tailings Cell #1, which was approved. That application was necessary to avoid suspending mine operations, which would result in job losses and other negative impacts. If the Coalspur Applications are not approved in a timely manner this situation will arise again,” stated a Jan. 27 letter to the AER from law firm Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt on behalf of Coalspur.
Hinton Mayor Marcel Michaels announced Feb. 5 during a Facebook live that Big Horn temporarily shut down operations due to a permit issue in Phase 1 of the mine, resulting in the temporary layoff of 300 people.
Yellowhead County Mayor Jim Eglinski told The Voice that he was made aware three weeks ago of an issue raised by multiple statements of concern surrounding the tailings ponds permit application.
Tailings ponds are used by mining operations to store the waste made from separating minerals from rocks.
Coalspur submitted its permit amendment applications for the tailing ponds in August 2020 and the AER received statements of concern (SOC) in September from two groups that stated they were impacted by the applications.
After conducting a detailed technical, environmental, and stakeholder impact review, the AER issued a decision on Jan. 19, 2020, that the application for tailings cell construction at Vista’s mine site will go to a public hearing.
“Coalspur submitted an application to construct tailings cells for storage, consolidation, and dewatering of fine plant refuse at its Vista mine site near Hinton. The AER received statements of concern (SOCs) regarding the applications, which have not been fully addressed,” said Tonya Zelinsky, communications specialist for the AER.
Hearings can be triggered when the AER receives SOCs where the SOC filer is determined to be directly and adversely affected and the licensee has been unable to demonstrate how they will mitigate those concerns.
“A hearing on this matter will proceed unless the issues are resolved through other means, such as direct negotiation, alternative dispute resolution, and withdrawal of the statement of concern. Licensees are encouraged to work with SOC filers outside of the formal hearing process to resolve concerns and issues.”
The AER did not clarify how soon that hearing would be scheduled, but their website stated the hearing process until a decision is made could take as long as 60 weeks if the maximum amount of time is taken for each step.
“Those are 300 people with hopes, dreams, and families who are now facing uncertainty—uncertainty that is especially magnified during these unprecedented times,” said West Yellowhead MLA Martin Long, adding he is hopeful that the issue can be resolved.
An application for one additional tailings cell was first filed in November 2019 and was approved in early 2020. The Hinton Voice could not find records on the AER website for that application, and none were provided when requested from the regulator.
Coalspur explained in its August 2020 application that additional tailing cells are required as volumes within the first McPherson tailing cell continue to increase and the mining progresses east with the McPherson Pit mine plan.
“The Mine has experienced an increased volume in the material being generated from the underflow of the Processing Plant’s thickener cells. This increase has caused the mine to fully utilize the capabilities of the Filter Press Plant and therefore do not have the capacity to process the excess underflow being generated,” stated the application for the additional eight cells.
Bighorn requested amendments in August 2020 to existing permits and approvals to obtain an authorization process to construct the remaining eight McPherson tailings cells.
That application prompted SOCs from the Louis Bull Tribe (LBT) and Gunn Metis Local #55 (GML), also known as Lac Ste. Anne Métis (LSAM), on Sept. 17, 2020.
According to the Jan. 27 letter from Bighorn to the AER, GML/LSAM withdrew its SOC on Jan. 26, 2021, stating that it no longer had concerns and that they would not participate in the hearing.
The remaining SOC, filed by LBT, lists primary concerns that include a reduction in available area to practice traditional rights, the reclamation plan, possibile tailings pond disasters based on historic events, tailings seepage into the surrounding environment, impacts to fish health and habitat, and food security and human health.
LBT’s SOC added that not all LBT members reside on its reserve lands in Maskwacis, and that some LBT members reside at Smallboy Camp approximately 55 km southeast of the Vista Mine area.
They requested AER to halt processing the applications until Bighorn engages with LBT to address their concerns, including an explanation on why a new tailings pond is required, what went wrong in prior systems, and how LBT would be impacted.
The LBT SOC said, “the provincial Crown has a duty to consult, and possibly accommodate the Tribe before the Applications are approved. Coalspur’s application materials are silent about whether the Alberta Consultation Office has been asked for a determination on whether consultation is required and, if so, whether it was adequate. Coalspur did not notify or engage with the Tribe about the Applications.”
Alberta’s Aboriginal Consultation Office (ACO) issued its determination on Sept. 8, 2020, that no consultation with any First Nations or Metis Settlements is required on amendments for the water act and Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.
After receiving the two SOCs, the ACO confirmed in a Nov. 19 email that no consultation is required with respect to the McPherson tailings ponds.
“I hope this email helps clarify that the ACO does not require consultation for the McPherson Pond Update project,” concluded Kurt Borzel, consultation advisor from the Upper Athabasca Region ACO.
The Hinton Voice asked the AER in a Feb. 9 email what impact on its deliberations the ACO ruling had, if any, regarding the LBT statement of concern. Zelinsky stated in a Feb. 10 message that she was working on a response, but that an answer to that question could not be provided prior to our deadline.
After GML/LSAM withdrew its SOC, Bighorn requested that the AER disregard the final remaining SOC filed by LBT and not pursue the hearing.
The AER may refuse to allow a person or group to participate in a hearing if they have not demonstrated that they are directly and adversely affected by the AER’s decision on an application, stated the Jan. 27 letter from Bighorn.
Bighorn stated that LBT did not prove they are directly and adversely affected by the Bighorn application.
“By its own admission, LBT reserve lands are located at least 260 km east of Phase I. The McPherson Tailings Cells two to nine will not expand Phase I’s existing mine footprint, and Phase I already underwent a comprehensive environmental assessment that included a public hearing,” stated the Jan. 27 letter from Bighorn.
Bighorn included a letter of support from the Ermineskin Cree Nation (ECN), which stated the Smallboys Camp was established in 1967 by two ECN citizens. The camp currently includes 161 ECN citizens who reside in 30 homes built by ECN.
ECN stated in that letter it has negotiated an agreement with Bighorn to address potential impacts on ECN’s Treaty and Aboriginal rights and pursuant to which ECN and its citizens benefit from the ongoing operation of the Vista Project.
“If the Coalspur Applications are not approved in a timely manner and the ongoing operations at the Vista Project are interrupted, ECN and its citizens will be negatively affected. Therefore, we ask that the AER approve the Coalspur Applications as soon as possible,” said Carol Wildcat, director of ECN Industrial Relations Department.
Bighorn called LBT’s concerns around the reclamation plan vague, noting that concerns around reclamation, tailings seepage, impacts on wildlife habitat, and health and food security are all adequately dealt with or addressed through the applications, EIA report, and Phase I public hearing.
“LBT was consulting with Coalspur on the Applications until late Monday when LBT advised it wished to have no further discussions with Coalspur at this time,” stated the Jan. 27 Bighorn letter.
The Hinton Voice attempted to reach multiple sources at Bighorn Mining/Coalspur with clarifying questions and for comment on this story, but there was no response prior to The Hinton Voice deadline.
Phase I of the Vista Coal Mine was initially approved in 2014 but remained dormant due to weak thermal prices. In 2019, Bighorn’s Vista mine started production and produced 1.4 megatonnes (Mt) of coal.
The first shipment of coal from the Vista Mine departed on May 11, 2019 destined for Ridley Terminal at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, used as thermal coal to generate electricity in Asian countries.
For any questions about applications by Bighorn or the AER’s regulatory process, contact the AER at Inquiries@aer.ca, or by phone at +1-855-297-8311.
Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice