Coal mining company applies for new drilling permit in Grassy Mountain deposit

Proposed site of the Grassy Mountain mining project, in the Crowsnest Pass area of Alberta, taken June 16, 2021.  (Evelyne Asselin/CBC - image credit)
Proposed site of the Grassy Mountain mining project, in the Crowsnest Pass area of Alberta, taken June 16, 2021. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC - image credit)

The company that had a coal mining project at Grassy Mountain rejected two years ago has submitted a new proposal for drilling and exploration in that southwestern corner of Alberta.

Northback Holdings Corporation, previously called Benga Mining Limited, has submitted three fresh applications to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) for work in the area. One asking for authorization to run a coal exploration program, one for temporary water diversion, and one for a deep drilling permit.

The company is seeking permission to mine steel-making coal from the Grassy Mountain deposit, located a few kilometres north of Blairmore, Alta., in the Crowsnest Pass.

Northback, owned by an Australian parent company, wants to drill 46 boreholes between 150 and 550 metres deep on a mix of Crown land and its own private land.

The application, submitted at the end of August, asks the AER for permission to start exploration on Oct. 15.

It says it wants to "better understand the full depth of the Grassy Mountain deposit, to obtain raw coal samples/acid rock drainage samples," plus model the structure of the seams of coal.

CBC News did not receive a response to requests for comment from the company.

The AER said it registered the application in early September and it is currently under review. Applications can be processed as quickly as three weeks while some take upwards of a year, according to the AER. A company is allowed to file an appeal if it's rejected.

This isn't the first time this company has attempted to harvest the coal deposits in this strand of the Rockies.

Back when it was called Benga Mining, the company applied for development permissions on Grassy Mountain. Federal and provincial entities responded with a two-part refusal.

In June 2021, the AER said the open-pit coal project wasn't in the public interest. Then, a federal review of the proposition found it was likely to cause unjustified severe environmental effects on water quality, a threatened species of trout and endangered a variety of pine tree.

At the time, the company anticipated the mine would operate for about 25 years, produce 4.5 million tonnes of coal and generate $1.7 billion in taxes for the government.

Alberta's top court then denied an appeal request from the company and two area First Nations.

Katie Morrison, executive director of the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), said this time around, the company could face even steeper barriers to approval.

"A lot of people now really understand the impacts and are very concerned and have really pushed back on that," she said.

"So it really actually is hard for me to fathom how the company thinks that they're going to get through all of those barriers and get a project."

Contentious topic

Coal development on the slopes in question has been a fraught political and environmental topic for the last three years.

Alberta rescinded its 45-year-old coal policy in the summer of 2020, sparking enormous backlash from the public, municipal officials, environmental groups — as well as Corb Lund, a country music star who lives downstream from a proposed mine site — all of them concerned about the risk of opening up protected lands to a resurgence of mining development.

That policy was reinstated the following year with its land categorization system that dictates how and where leasing, exploration and development could occur. Coal exploration and development is currently restricted on Category 2, 3 and 4 lands.

The land proposed in Northback's application is classified as Category 4, but the initial project was one of a handful exempt from the ban because it was classified as an advanced project by the province.

"Strong restrictions still remain in place on coal mining in the Eastern slopes," Brian Jean, Alberta's energy minister, wrote in a statement.

"The Ministerial Order and the reinstated 1976 coal policy are protecting the area with a restriction on new exploration and development, while allowing existing active mines and advanced projects to continue."

Some of the drill holes mapped in the new proposal will be close to the existing, decommissioned underground coal mine that operated until the 1960s.