Next month, a provincial-federal joint review panel on the massive Grassy Mountain Coal Project in the southern Canadian Rockies will table a decision that could determine the fate of Alberta’s famed eastern slopes.
If the panel gives the contentious metallurgical coal mine a green light, the doors could open for other existing proposals that could industrialize nearly 1,000 square kilometres of the Rockies and threaten the region’s scarce water supplies.
Or the panel could rule against it, reflecting what it heard from writer and local resident Sid Marty in a public hearing last fall. Mountain top removal in the Rockies, said Marty, is “the wrong development, in the wrong location, in the wrong century.”
Much hinges on the panel’s report and recommendations that will be submitted to federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson next month.
For starters, the Alberta government of Jason Kenney has strongly championed Australian metallurgical coal developers as an important new source of jobs and revenue that could replace shrinking oilsands developments in the province.
All the steel-making coal would be shipped to Vancouver-area terminals for export to China or India.
In addition, the province and the Coal Association of Canada, directed by former Alberta Tory environment minister Robin Campbell, have tried to sell open-pit coal mining as a form of “reconciliation” that can enrich First Nations.
Meanwhile, the Kenney government hopes the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, owned by right-wing political activist and Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart, will be the first of eight proposed mines in the watershed of the Oldman River which, in turn, feeds the South Saskatchewan River.
To bolster Aussie coal mining ambitions, Kenney last year rescinded the province’s Coal Policy, which forbade open-pit mining on Category 2 lands in the eastern slopes — a surprise move made without any public consultation.
But a wave of public outrage eventually forced the government to restore the policy. The province will conduct a public hearing this summer that critics claim is too narrowly focused. The government says the committee will help determine the future of coal mining in the Rockies.
But Grassy Mountain, located in part on previously mined land in the Crowsnest Pass, wasn’t affected by that unprecedented dispute.
It remains the first of several proposed mines to undergo an environmental assessment, and the first to test regulatory waters.
Landowners, ranchers, conservationists, hunters, irrigators and many First Nation communities have opposed the coal megaproject because it represents, as one lawyer put it, “a massive industrial intrusion in the southern eastern slopes, without precedent in Alberta history.”
During the fall public hearing about the project, a host of well-substantiated concerns were presented. The question is whether the federal government will turn a blind eye to them. If so, it will have waved away these 16 issues:
A panel out of balance
The federal-provincial joint review panel that conducted public hearings was Alberta heavy. Two of the three panel members came from the scandal-plagued Alberta Energy Regulator which, for the record, has never rejected an oilsands mine proposal.
Alex Bolton, the panel chair, serves as chief hearing commissioner for the AER. Dean O’Gorman, member of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation from Newfoundland, has been a hearing commissioner with AER since 2017. Hans Matthews, an Anishnawbek from the Wahnapitae First Nation, is president of the Canadian Aboriginal Minerals Association. Matthews was the sole federal representative on the panel.
The Australians’ ‘multi-mine’ agenda
Although four different Australian companies have proposed as many as eight distinct open-pit mines in or around the Oldman watershed in the southern Rockies, the joint panel ruled that Riversdale Resources did not have to consider these other projects in its Cumulative Effects Assessment. The panel argued that the other projects were just in their “exploratory phase.”
Yet Steve Mallyon, managing director of Riversdale Resources, told an Australian audience in 2018 that “the long-term strategy for us is to really become a multi-mine producer in that region.” Then, during the hearing, the company abruptly changed its tune, saying, “It would be inappropriate to speculate about possible future expansions in the context of the present Environmental Assessment.”
The near give-away royalty rate
Prior to the hearing, Riversdale Resources, which proposed the open-pit mine nearly a decade ago and operates under the name of Benga Mining, said Alberta’s one-per-cent coal royalty made the project highly competitive. Royalties in Australia are seven per cent.
Timing was the other key factor. “The downturn in the oilsands sector makes our ability to produce this project on time and on budget a little easier,” Mallyon told the Sydney Mining Club in 2018.
The massive scale of the project
A century ago, the Crowsnest Pass bustled with underground coal mining followed by limited surface mining in the 1960s. But it has never seen any development on the scale of Grassy Mountain. Located just north of the town of Blairmore, the proposed mine pit site will occupy 15 square kilometres of a 37-square-kilometre mine permit boundary “inaccessible by the public during construction and operation of the mine.”
During the hearings, Riversdale Resources argued that its project was just “re-establishing” an old surface mine in the Rockies. That mine scarred 185 hectares. Grassy will dig up 1,500 hectares.
While historical underground and surface mines on Grassy Mountain extracted 14 million tonnes of coal over a 55-year period from 1913 to 1968, Riversdale Resources plans to extract 93 million tonnes over 23 years.
The removal of mountain tops
In a game of semantics, the Alberta government says it will allow open-pit terrace mining in the Rockies but it won’t approve mountain top removal. But Gary Houston, Benga Mining’s vice-president of external affairs, told the federal-provincial joint panel last fall that his company was strictly in the mountain top removal business.
During the panel hearing, Gavin Fitch, a lawyer representing the Livingstone Landowners Group, asked Houston, if there is “any difference between open-pit mining and mountaintop removal mining?”
“I think that they’re both the same thing,” replied Houston.
The mining executive later elaborated: “I’m saying that the techniques are the same, and there’s little distinction in terms of the process.”
The treating of locals and First Nations as ‘hurdles’
In 2018, Riversdale executive Mallyon identified local support from the community and First Nations as the only “two hurdles” to obtaining a mine permit in Canada.
To gain the support of residents in the Crowsnest Pass, the company spent millions moving and rebuilding a golf course to make room for a big automated rail loop for the project. It also held Australia Day open houses where the company served “fake Australian food” and auctioned off kangaroo skins, said Mallyon.
During the public hearing, Gary Houston, vice-president of public relations for Benga Mining, assured the panel that it had thoroughly consulted with “all Treaty 7 First Nations” in southern Alberta including Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe), Piikani Nation, Siksika Nation and Tsuut’ina Nation as early as 2016. First Nation leaders signed impact benefit agreements promising jobs and revenue.
Riversdale’s Mallyon even described First Nations as “the best unpaid lobby we’ve ever seen” in a presentation to Sydney Mining Club in 2018. That presentation has since been removed from that site.
During the hearing, many First Nations, which culturally regard the Rockies as the backbone of the world and home of their sacred creator Napi (Old Man), submitted letters stating that they do not oppose the project.
But ordinary members of the Blackfoot Confederacy tell a different story about Riversdale’s consultation process. Adam North Peigan, chair of the Mountain Child Valley Society, says Benga only consulted with a few leaders “and there was very little consultation with the grassroots community members. At the end of the day, the grassroots community members were left out in the dark as far as any kind of decision-making that had happened.”
Blood Tribe resident Latasha Calf Robe told a similar story: “As I started talking to more community members of the Blood Tribe and throughout the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Piikani and Siksika Nation, it became more apparent that no community-level consultations were done in any of these communities.”
The overstated economic benefits
During the hearing, Benga Mining argued it would deliver “significant” economic impacts to what it called “the decimated Alberta economy.”
The $740-million project would initially employ nearly 200 construction workers. After denuding the mountain and building roads and conveyor belts, the company might employ approximately 400 miners in a truck-and-shovel operation.
The company estimated that royalties and income taxes payable to the provincial and federal governments might total $1.7 billion over the life of the project or $68 million a year.
But a major B.C. study by well-respected economist Robyn Allan has shown that mining developers, which are subject to wild commodity price swings, typically overestimate benefits and underestimate costs in public hearings. In fact, they have rarely delivered to public coffers what they initially promise during regulatory hearings.
The hit to tourism
The Crowsnest Pass area, which is still recovering from a coal boom and bust and the environmental scars of mining, has banked its future on tourism and a revived real estate market. Many consider the region, with its spectacular peaks and valleys, “the Alps” of Canada.
But during the hearing, Riversdale Resources argued that open-pit mining was completely compatible and mutually supportive of recreation and tourism. Many residents of the area forcefully disagreed. They testified that tourists are not attracted to mining towns for a host of reasons including ugly landscapes, air pollution, coal dust, truck traffic and industrial blasting. The economic record shows that coal mining kills economic diversity.
The killing off of endangered trout
The Rocky Mountains were once famed for their trout bearing creeks, but logging, ATV traffic and mining have diminished fish populations. Westslope cutthroat trout, at one time the province’s most abundant trout species, are now listed under federal Species at Risk legislation.
Lorne Fitch, a retired provincial fish and wildlife biologist with 50 years of natural resource management, testified that the mining project would harm trout populations in Gold and Blairmore creeks and their tributaries. Most particularly, the mine would severely damage Gold Creek, which contains some of the last pure strain westslope cutthroat trout in the region.
Compensation actions proposed by Riversdale Resources “are untested, unproven, unsuitable, theoretical and overly optimistic to ensure westslope cutthroat trout populations persist and are allowed to recover,” testified Fitch who knows the area intimately.
But Riversdale Resources countered that “that Gold Creek is known habitat for westslope cutthroat trout but it is not good habitat, and it is not improving on its own over time.”
Towards the end of the hearing, O’Gorman, one of the panel members, asked Riversdale Resources several pointed questions. He cited uncertainties in the company’s modelling about potential levels of selenium and sulphate toxicity as well as phosphorous concentrations leaching into waterways.
Asked O’Gorman: “We’re curious about whether you have conducted from your perspective a real thorough cumulative effects assessment of all of these issues on westslope cutthroat?”
The company replied: “From where we sit the westslope cutthroat trout in Gold Creek are going to benefit from this project.”
The killing off of endangered whitebark pine
The Grassy Mountain project threatens another endangered species that defines the character of the Rocky Mountains: whitebark pine. The high elevation pine can live a thousand years and controls the pace of snow melt in alpine areas. Its high protein seeds also feed numerous species including grizzly bears. But climate change and disease have nearly wiped out these ancient, gnarled pines.
Riversdale Resources told the panel that the logging of 21,000 whitebark pines at the mine site shouldn’t be a concern because Species at Risk legislation explicitly allows a developer to destroy species and their habitat as long as the activity doesn’t jeopardize the survival of the species.
Benga, which said it would replant the pine elsewhere, further argued that the destruction of whitebark pine wasn’t purposeful but “incidental” to the purpose of the project, which is to mine coal.
The dubious pledge to avoid selenium pollution
Selenium pollution remains one of the darkest unsolved legacies of open-pit mining of metallurgical coal throughout the world. The highly toxic chemical leaches from piles of excavated rock rubble — along with a host of other pollutants including arsenic — and drains into local waterways where it can kill fish, birds and cattle for centuries.
In British Columbia, Teck Resources, which operates five open-pit coal mines, has spent nearly a billion dollars trying to limit selenium pollution in the Elk Valley watershed. To date, it has not yet found a foolproof method. The federal government recently fined the company $60 million for killing fish.
During the hearing, Gary Houston of Benga Mining vowed that his company would be one of the first coal mines to effectively deal with the problem of selenium leachate. Benga told the hearing that that its mine would capture 95 per cent of selenium-enriched contact water with a novel and unproven technology called the saturated backfill zone system or SBZ system. It consists of a mine pit backfilled with waste rock covered with water that would be injected with carbon to reduce chemical reactions producing selenium.
Benga acknowledged that a detailed engineering evaluation would be required to determine the feasibility of the proposed measures. In other words, no proven technology for cleaning up selenium pollution from open-pit mines currently exists.
The Livingstone Landowners Group and other mine opponents compared Benga’s backfill system to a “leaky bathtub.” The LLG argued that “Benga should not be allowed to pollute Blairmore and Gold Creek and by extension the Crowsnest River with selenium loading that is neither recommended nor achievable by the SBZ system.”
The impossible claim the land will be fully restored
The project will destroy an entire mountain and everything on it — trees, vegetation, wetlands, fescue grasslands, creeks and natural underground water drainage pathways. But Benga promised that the land will be fully reclaimed someday. In real terms, this means the site will be restored to a lesser landscape called “equivalent capability” with fewer species, fertilized grasses and heavily compromised water functions. A mountain destroyed cannot be reclaimed.
The easy exit with no liability
Coal mines open and close and often fail due to volatile market prices in B.C. and Alberta. Opponents of the project wanted to know who would pay the bills if Benga Mining, a wholly owned subsidiary of Riversdale Resources, fails. Riversdale, in turn, is wholly owned by the Hancock Corp., which is run by Gina Rinehart, the Australian billionaire with extensive political influence in Australia.
Incorporated in 2013 and purchased by Rinehart in 2019, Benga Mining has only one asset: Grassy Mountain. During the hearings, Gavin Fitch, a lawyer representing the Livingstone Landowners Group, asked what would happen if Benga became insolvent and couldn’t pay its bills or reclaim its toxic rock piles. Would Riversdale or Hancock assume the liabilities of cleanup and reclamation?
Here’s the answer that Benga provided: “So, Mr. Chairman, Benga is the limited company in Canada. Typically limited companies and shareholders of a limited company — shareholders of limited companies don’t take financial responsibility for — for the company in which they hold shares.”
In other words, Riversdale and Hancock wouldn’t bail out their Canadian subsidiary.
The risks posed to people’s health
Benga Mining produced a “Human Health Risk Assessment” that suggested the mine would not harm the health of local residents. But the company pointedly omitted a large body of peer reviewed research that says mountain top removal has devastating impacts on local communities over time.
The research from Appalachia, where mountain top removal mining has impoverished rural communities, offers a stark list of public health problems including higher cancer rates, higher heart and lung diseases, higher kidney problems and higher rates of birth defects. Michael Hendryx, an associate professor of community medicine at West Virginia University, links the diseases “to coal and rock dust from blasting and trucking, contaminated streams and groundwater, and toxic chemicals at coal preparation plants.” Until Hendryx started his studies, no one had investigated the health impacts of open-pit coal mining.
During the hearings, Benga Mining took the position that it “cannot take any assurance that the Appalachian studies are relevant at all to the Panel’s mandate.” Benga characterized this and related research as “hearsay.”
The threat to a way of life in Ranchland
Much of the Grassy Project would dig up alpine grasslands and timber located in the municipal district of Ranchland, a unique geography of 631,999 acres nestled in the foothills north of Crowsnest Pass. One hundred families ranch in the picturesque district which has no cities or hamlets. Popular western films such as Open Range and The Unforgiven have displayed the district’s rugged beauty.
Largely devoted to ranching and grazing, the land in the district includes some of the province’s least disturbed natural fescue grasslands, which store more carbon than a forest. During the hearings, the district’s officials said it opposed the project because a coal mine would impair scarce water quality and quantity; introduce noxious weeds; destroy ranching, a sustainable activity; and pollute the air.
Benga Mining attacked the municipal district’s position as "restrictive" and "untenable" in a province where the focus should be on "industrial development and economic diversification.”
During the hearing, Hancock Prospecting, Benga’s owner, lobbied the Alberta government for changes to the province’s Water Act so Benga Mining could secure more water from watersheds in Ranchland for its mine.
The failure of the Alberta government to represent Albertans
Although the project threatens endangered species and tourism, and imperils local ranching economies and critical watersheds, Alberta Environment did not participate in the public hearings. Nor did Alberta Health, Alberta Agriculture, Alberta Tourism or Alberta Energy.
For more than a decade now, Alberta government scientists have rarely participated in public hearings or been allowed to do so.
As a result, only the federal government scientists — from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Health Canada and Fisheries and Oceans — raised numerous concerns about glaring deficiencies in Benga’s studies on human health, climate change and endangered species.
Environment Canada, for example, said it couldn’t gauge the magnitude of environmental impacts caused by the mine because Benga said it would only develop operation details if the project was approved.
Fisheries and Oceans said Benga did such a poor job on collecting data on endangered westslope cutthroat trout that “information to date provides minimal confidence that baseline data collected is sufficient to validate predictions.”
The department added that the effects on native trout “are likely underestimated and a full quantification of effects is unknown.” It concluded that the mine “is likely to result in significant adverse effects to westslope cutthroat trout.”
Health Canada said Benga Mining had provided so little germane information to the panel that there were “outstanding limitations with the reliability of the proponent’s predictions of potential risks to human health.”