Panel finds Grassy Mountain project ‘not in public interest’

·4 min read

The federal-provincial joint review panel that assessed the proposed Grassy Mountain coal mine has recommended against the project.

The panel reached its decision after considering numerous environmental issues, particularly risks to water quality and the population of threatened westslope cutthroat trout.

The panel’s report, released June 17, was submitted to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, with a recommendation to reject the project.

Acting for the Alberta Energy Regulator, the panel denied the provincial applications, saying “the project is not in the public interest.”

Located just north of Blairmore, the Grassy Mountain site currently sits unreclaimed after mining activities ceased back in the 1960s. Benga Mining proposed a 23-year project to mine about 93 million tons of metallurgical coal and said reclamation efforts on the site would be ongoing.

Benga estimated about $1.7 billion would be generated in provincial and federal income taxes and royalties, with about 500 construction positions and 385 full-time site positions created during operations.

The Municipality of Crowsnest Pass supported the project on the grounds that resource extraction could be done in an environmentally responsible way. The verdict reached by the joint review panel that the project poses unacceptable risks to the environment, says Mayor Blair Painter, is “definitely very sad.”

“We’ve lost about 45 people in the Crowsnest Pass that were employed with Riversdale, and we’ve lost an opportunity for another 350 to 400 jobs with them. It’s sad, but it is what it is — we have no say.”

While recognizing water protection is crucial, Mayor Painter says economic growth is also important in making the community a viable place to live.

“We definitely would like to secure a permanent industry — an industry that would have well-paying jobs. That would be ideal,” he says. “But the reality is no one has been beating our door down other than Riversdale and Montem and Atrum to actually move ahead.”

Though unsure if the panel’s decision might set a precedent for other proposed coal projects in the area, Mayor Painter says the current task at hand is for the municipality to move ahead on other opportunities.

“We’re not going to throw all our eggs into one basket. Coal, I’m sure, at this point in time anyway, will always play a role in our future, but we are definitely open to exploring other opportunities,” he says.

“We’re not going to hold our breath waiting for the next opportunity. We’ll just have to move along.”

In a statement released Tuesday, Benga says it will engage with relevant authorities to better understand the panel’s decision and to ensure “the process has been fair and transparent, has accorded sufficient weight to recognized experts and established industry practices, and that the decision is not effectively an anti-development decision.”

The mining proposal has drawn significant criticism, particularly that open-pit mining in the Oldman River watershed would pose environmental risks to communities downstream.

During the review and public hearing process, Benga said strict mitigation efforts would protect water and air quality, with reclamation efforts returning a safe site to a state that equals current use.

The joint review report, however, states Benga’s “claimed effectiveness of the proposed measures was overly optimistic and not supported by the evidence provided.”

Specifically, the panel was skeptical that mining operations would be able to capture 95 to 99 per cent of contact water containing selenium. It said the company also failed to provide evidence that proposed saturated backfill zones would remove 99 per cent of the selenium in captured water.

The lack of details on how operations would affect Blairmore and Gold Creek, especially during periods of low flow, made the panel unsure just how badly the habitat of westslope cutthroat trout would be affected.

The panel was also concerned that reclamation plans for sensitive species of vegetation, including rough fescue grasslands and endangered whitebark pine, would fail, since restoration of these species at other sites has not been successful.

As a result, the panel was not confident the proposed mitigation strategies were feasible.

“We find that the project would result in low to moderate positive economic impacts on the regional economy,” the report says, “but that Benga did not consider some risks that could reduce the magnitude of these positive impacts.”

The full joint review panel report can be viewed online at bit.ly/GrassyMountainReport.

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

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