Opening statements made in Grassy Mountain hearing

·11 min read

A public hearing for the controversial Grassy Mountain metallurgical coal mine began the week of Halloween — appropriate, since arguments for and against the development rest on whether the project is an environmental trick or economic treat.

The proposed mine location, about seven kilometres north of Blairmore, is actually the site of earlier mining ventures from the early 1900 to 1950s. Benga Mining, a subsidiary of Riversdale Resources, purchased the property in 2013 and began working through the regulatory process in 2015.

A joint federal-provincial review panel is holding the hearing entirely online. Opening statements began Oct. 27 and 28.

Sessions are scheduled to run to the end of November, and panel members will hear testimony from witnesses and consider in-depth economic and environmental issues associated with the mine.

This is the first of a series of articles that will cover the hearing proceedings. This week’s article summarizes the remarks of various groups that made opening statements and is split in half to present the arguments for and against the mine.

The hearing is being live-streamed on YouTube at https://bit.ly/GMtnHearing, with past sessions also available. A general schedule of the proceedings is online at https://bit.ly/GMschedule, with the detailed scheduling of participants posted at https://bit.ly/wEekly-schedule. Documents submitted by participants, along with official transcripts, can be found at https://bit.ly/AllDocx.

PRO: An environmentally responsible economic boon

Gary Houston, Benga’s vice-president of external relations, opened the proceedings with information about the project.

The proposed mine covers about 2,800 hectares, with half of the development to occur on Benga property. It would be an open-pit mine, used when coal deposits are near the surface or when surrounding sediment makes tunnelling dangerous.

The process involves drilling and blasting through the top layer of soil and rock, which is then removed by excavators and hauled by truck to be stored outside the pit. Waste rock is placed back into the hole once mining is completed.

The site has an estimated 93 metric tons of coal. Once mined, the coal would be treated before being transported down a covered conveyor to the rail load-out station in Blairmore. It would then be moved by train to a port in Vancouver for shipment to steelmakers in China, India and Japan.

The steel, said Mr. Houston, would provide high-quality product for infrastructure, automobile, and machinery projects in countries all over the world.

The construction phase would create an estimated 500 jobs and $210 million in GDP in Alberta and British Columbia. It’s expected the mine itself would operate for 23 years, creating 400 full-time jobs and $1.7 billion in payments to the provincial and federal governments. Locally, annual tax revenues from the mine would be about $990,000 for the MD of Ranchland and $490,000 for Crowsnest Pass.

If approved, construction would begin in 2021 with coal shipments beginning in 2023.

Mr. Houston pointed to the extensive regulatory process Benga underwent, including consultation with indigenous communities and stakeholders, to ensure its plans were environmentally sound.

“Benga understands that in order to maintain the confidence of regulators and the public and to remain welcome on the lands on which we operate in Canada and worldwide, responsible environmental performance is a must,” he said.

Mr. Houston highlighted two important aspects of Benga’s environmental plans: land reclamation and the endangered westslope cutthroat trout population.

Reclamation, he explained, would start the second year of the mine’s operation. A third of the area would be reclaimed by the 15-year mark, with two-thirds finished by the end of operations. The remainder of reclamations would occur within three years of closing.

Benga has also spent the last five years studying and monitoring the trout habitats in Gold Creek and Blairmore Creek, which revealed, said Mr. Houston, several existing stressors that directly threaten trout numbers. Benga’s reclamation plan, coupled with a fisheries offsetting plan, would help improve fish habitat.

“We are confident that this project can be developed in an environmentally responsible manner while generating significant socio-economic benefits for the surrounding communities, Alberta, and Canada,” Mr. Houston concluded.

Hitting pay dirt

The review panel also heard evidence from Robin Campbell, president of the Coal Association of Canada, that investing in the coal mining and steel manufacturing industries is a profitable economic decision.

Though the price of steel has increased by only 0.5 per cent this year as a result of the pandemic, estimates say prices will jump by five per cent in 2021. Given that Canada is the third-largest metallurgical coal exporter in the world, filling the world’s steel manufacturing demands is an important way to ensure ethical production.

“People continue to talk about the demise of coal, but I’ll say to you that coal is not going away anytime soon,” Mr. Campbell said. “It’s important that if the coal is not coming from Canada that has high mining standards, has good health and safety, good labour, the coal’s going to come from some other countries that don’t have the same standards that we do.”

Mr. Campbell also said the mine would indirectly spur economic growth. For every mining job, three additional jobs would be created in sectors like housing, social services, health care and the service industry.

The project is already benefiting Canadians, he continued. Land purchasing, exploration, and the regulatory process have cost about $700 million. Though the money came from Australian backers, it has all been spent in Canada, supporting Canadian workers, he said.

“It’s important that they get a return on their investment.”

Community support

Representatives from surrounding communities, including First Nations and Métis, then presented their support for the project.

Bill Snow, consultation manager for the Stoney Nakoda Nations administration, said his nation would continue to support the project as long as specific concerns are addressed, particularly regarding land access.

“Since the proposed project will be located in a land that is currently unoccupied Crown land, the Stoney Nakoda expect that the Alberta and Canadian [governments] replace lands that are taken up for this particular project with new lands that are suitable to the Stoney Nakoda to practise our aboriginal and treaty rights or, failing that, otherwise compensate Stoney Nakoda,” Mr. Snow said.

Kirk Poitras, representative of Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3, also voiced support, alongside Chief Barbara Cote of the Shuswap Indian Band. Chief Cote requested that in-depth consultation be continued throughout the project, particularly over access to ecological resources.

Though not at the panel meeting, the Piikani Nation has also expressed support for the Grassy Mountain project.

Raymond Warden, director of lands and resources for Ktunaxa Nation council, voiced a neutral stance, noting that specific concerns the Ktunaxa Nation had would be explained later during the Nov. 9 discussion on indigenous topics.

Representatives for Crowsnest Pass and Pincher Creek also voiced support for the coal mine, citing important economic growth at a time residents most need it.

“From a local town council perspective, the proposed Grassy Mountain coal mine project has given us hope for a return to increased employment numbers and a more sustainable economy,” said Coun. Brian McGillivray, acting deputy mayor for Pincher Creek.

With the economic fallout of the pandemic and the withdrawing support of provincial and federal governments, Coun. McGillivray said the project would provide a positive and prolonged advantage to a region that has been in gradual decline.

He also said Pincher Creek has the infrastructure and social services in place to support workers moving to the area.

After having an expert in environmental and regulatory affairs review Benga’s application, “Crowsnest Pass is satisfied that if Benga commits to the mitigation measures outlined in its project proposals, the project will satisfactorily meet the requirements for approval at this stage,” said Alifeyah Gulamhusein, legal counsel for Crowsnest Pass.

The municipality laid out 15 requirements it wants met during operation, including noise, air, and light monitoring and mitigation. Benga’s commitment to pollution monitoring, Ms. Gulamhusein said, is particularly important since the rail load out is only 650 metres from the hospital.

Other conditions include ensuring the load-out and conveyor are fully closed, steam-washing all equipment to prevent spreading weeds, monitoring traffic flow, implementing a complaint management process, and creating an advisory committee and a shared emergency plan with the municipality.

CON: A questionable economic venture not worth the environmental risk

Richard Secord, representing a coalition between the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Grassy Mountain landowners group, was the first to voice opposition to the project.

As part of the hearing process, Mr. Secord explained, an expert witness who reviewed the mine’s geology, groundwater-surface interaction, chemistry and climate change implications would be called to testify that Benga’s modelling and assumptions were inadequate.

“These are reasons enough to deny this application,” said Mr. Secord.

The project’s impact on property values, water and air quality, and road access was also discussed. Two private properties lie within the mine’s boundaries, with one just 200 metres from the proposed open-cut pit, and two others are immediately adjacent to the south and southeast.

Landowner concerns are behind the MD of Ranchland voicing opposition to the Grassy Mountain mine.

“I have not heard from a single member of the community who’s in favour,” said Coun. Cam Gardner.

Ranchland Reeve Ron Davis added that the MD first learned about the proposed mine after Crowsnest Pass council attempted to annex portions of the MD back in 2013.

“The mayor and council for the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass at the time had prior knowledge of the proposed mining operations and had discussions with Riversdale Resources,” Reeve Davis said.

“They decided to attempt to expand their boundaries to include the Grassy Mountain area. That attempt failed because of the intent of that action.”

The reeve also dismissed the projected $990,000 increase to its tax revenue. Though amounting to a 55 to 60 per cent increase (the MD’s revenue in 2019 was $1.9 million), relatively low operating costs make further revenue unnecessary, he said.

The MD views the project as precedent-setting since other mining companies are now also exploring project options. Because each mine would have a buffer zone around its boundary prohibiting grazing, the MD says approval of Grassy Mountain would pave the way for the local ranching economy’s ruin.

“It is unfair that the MD and its residents will be potentially forced to accept this destructive burden from all these coal mines,” concluded Coun. Gardner.

Unidentified costs

Gavin Fitch, representing the Livingstone Landowners Group, said Benga’s application ignored medical evidence of higher rates of birth defects, cancer, and lung, heart and kidney disease among people living next to open-pit mines.

The oversight is compounded further, said Mr. Fitch, by the fact Benga monitored the wind for a period of two to three months that was not during peak wind season, ignoring how regular high wind speeds will spread pollutants in the area.

The economic benefit projected by Benga is also misleading, he said, because it does not communicate the costs associated with the project. The risk to the water supply of southern Alberta residents, along with the multibillion-dollar industry of irrigation and agri-food production, is therefore not worth the money.

Given that previous efforts to reclaim sensitive fescue grassland had failed, Mr. Fitch also questioned the validity of Benga’s reclamation plans in the area.

On top of disputing Benga’s claim that the mine can operate without irreversibly damaging sensitive habitat and wildlife, legal counsel for the Timberwolf Wilderness Society said the mine contravenes federal law.

“The Grassy Mountain mine not only cannot be approved as designed, but ... there is no conceivable or practical change in the mine plan that would make it legal under the Species at Risk Act to either approve or build,” said Mike Sawyer.

In particular, he said that the application underestimates increasing precipitation numbers that compound downstream risks, and that the proposal also fails to account for the mine’s levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Drew Yewchuk, legal counsel for the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said the mine would be the largest project permitted under the Species at Risk Act, which would compromise its legal integrity.

“There is no benefit to the westslope cutthroat trout from the federal government passing their responsibilities over to Benga,” Mr. Yewchuk said.

Facing the future

Additionally, the potential for the mine to not be financially viable and to close early could leave reclamation commitments unmet, something regularly seen in the oil and gas industry with abandoned well sites.

Grassy Mountain’s economic viability was further questioned by Janet Gourlay-Vallance from Eco-Elders for Climate Action.

Advances in steel production using hydrogen will soon leave the coal industry obsolete, she said, increasing the likelihood that Benga would walk away from reclamation commitments.

Even if profitable, Ms. Gourlay-Vallance said, the project’s short-term benefit simply is not worth the devastation that would affect future generations.

“How will we be able to stand with integrity before our grandchildren and admit we chose to ignore what we knew, rather than have the courage and creativity to envision a different future?” she asked.

Coleman resident Barbara Janusz expressed a similar sentiment.

“There are incalculable costs associated with mountaintop removal mining, environmental costs that will be borne by future generations. We must finally turn a corner, turn away from an economy of extraction and pollution,” she said.

“It’s not about us baby boomers anymore, but about future generations.”

Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze