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Local Economy

Caribou or Coal Mine?

BC rejected the Sukunka mine to protect one threatened herd. Now it considers an application from Telkwa Coal.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 7 Feb

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

In December, B.C. rejected an application for a coal mine proposed for the northeast — an unusual move for the province, which has issued more than a dozen environmental certificates to mines in the past decade and turned down just three.

The Sukunka mine, which was proposed by multinational mining giant Glencore, was expected to operate for more than 20 years and produce roughly three million tons of coal annually.

But it also posed significant threats to the Quintette caribou herd, with the mine overlapping several hundred hectares of caribou habitat that had already been heavily impacted by industry. In its decision, the province also noted concerns over water quality and Indigenous rights.

Nearby Blueberry River First Nations won a groundbreaking B.C. Supreme Court case in 2021, commonly referred to as the Yahey court decision, that acknowledged the province had infringed on its treaty rights by allowing industrial development that resulted in cumulative damaging effects.

In recommending against the Sukunka project, B.C.’s chief executive assessment officer cited the “potential effects on and risks to the Quintette caribou herd and associated serious impacts that Sukunka would have on the Treaty right to hunt caribou.”

But it remains to be seen whether the province’s environmental regulator will make a similar determination about the Telkwa Coal mine in B.C.’s northwest, a project proposed within a wildlife habitat area established to support a struggling caribou herd.

The project, an open-pit coal mine, would be within the Telkwa caribou herd’s range, 25 kilometres south of Smithers. With a projected life of more than 25 years, it would produce close to one million tons of coal annually, according to Australia-based parent company Allegiance Coal, and provide up to 170 jobs. The mine’s footprint would cover about 1,000 hectares.

Some local residents believe the impacts of the proposed mine on the Telkwa herd mirror those the Sukunka project was projected to have on the Quintette herd.

“The Sukunka mine decision, when it came to caribou, it’s clearly a very similar set of risks to the existence of the herd,” says Jay Gilden, a local resident and member of What Matters in Our Valley, a community group working to raise awareness about potential impacts from the mine.

Telkwa Coal entered the environmental assessment process in November 2018, just as the province introduced changes to the Environmental Assessment Act and three years after it declared the area a wildlife habitat area “necessary to meet the habitat requirements” for caribou.

While the habitat designation applies mainly to forestry activities, it requires mining companies to include a caribou mitigation and monitoring plan in its application and outline efforts to minimize and restore impacts to caribou habitat.

Designation of the wildlife habitat area came after decades of trying to stabilize the Telkwa caribou herd, says Len Vanderstar, a local resident and science advisor to What Matters in Our Valley.

Vanderstar, a former habitat protection biologist with the B.C. government, said the herd’s future is still uncertain. “We’re in recovery mode of a population that is threatened with extirpation and designated as such by the federal government.”

“It’s been a poor [environmental assessment] application with respect to adequately responding to the threats of caribou recovery,” he said.

The Telkwa caribou herd, along with the Tweedsmuir herd to the south, are “remnant subpopulations” of what was once a larger population that roamed the region, Vanderstar said. The herd was splintered by human activity, with some smaller subpopulations snuffed out altogether.

In the early 1960s, caribou in the Telkwa herd still numbered in the hundreds. But hunting of the animals by helicopter decimated the herd, leaving only a few dozen caribou by the end of that decade, Vanderstar said.

When Vanderstar began working with the Ministry of Environment in the early 1990s, he pushed for the herd’s recovery. “By the time we were going to start the recovery efforts on the ground, we only had 12 animals left,” he said. “The herd was going right to extirpation.”

Caribou were brought in from other regions to augment the Telkwa herd and voluntary restrictions were placed on recreation, such as snowmobiling, hiking, trapping and horseback riding, in the area. Initial results were encouraging — in under a decade, the Telkwa herd grew to more than 110 animals, Vanderstar said.

But voluntary compliance with restrictions began to erode, Vanderstar said, and an uptick in recreation and logging in the area in the mid-2000s put renewed pressure on the herd. In 2018, the province passed legislation that restricted motorized recreation in most of the Telkwa caribou habitat. Non-motorized recreation, like backcountry skiing and hiking, is also restricted and requires a permit in some areas.

The population has been “holding steady” the past five years, Vanderstar said.

“We have about three dozen animals up there now, but the federal government has considered the herd to be imminent risk of extirpation,” he said. “What’s very clear [is] that the current landscape disturbance already exceeds what the federal government considers an objective for recovery.”

Several caribou, some with antlers, huddle together in a snowy setting.
According to caribou experts from the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, Telkwa Coal’s conclusion that effects of its proposed mine on the Telkwa herd would be ‘not significant’ does not ‘adequately consider the decades of scientific understanding on Telkwa caribou.’ Photo submitted.

Like the Quintette herd, the Telkwa caribou herd is a woodland caribou listed as “threatened” under both Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife and the federal Species at Risk Act. Provincially, it is blue-listed, making it of “special concern,” while the Quintette herd is red-listed — making it at risk of being extirpated, or disappearing altogether.

In May 2018, both the Telkwa and Quintette herds were among 10 local populations the federal government flagged as facing an “imminent threat” to recovery. The feds indicated the province could be facing an emergency protection order under Section 80 of the federal Species at Risk Act, which could force the provincial government to take action to protect the herds.

Just months later, in November 2018, Telkwa Coal entered into the environmental assessment process, beginning to collect the data needed for the EAO to review the project. It filed its application with the province a year ago.

In a recent response from the Environmental Assessment Office, the province recognized its obligation under the Species at Risk Act. The EAO’s Oct. 6 letter requested further information about the project, noting that the Wet’suwet’en Nation and the public had “all emphasized the importance of protecting and sustaining the Telkwa caribou herd.”

“The province has concerns that this project will further the decline of the Telkwa caribou herd, will compromise recovery measures, and could trigger a protection order under Section 80 of the Species at Risk Act,” the letter said.

“Project impacts and residual effects, including direct removal of important habitat for [greater than] 10 years, restrict the ability of the Telkwa caribou herd to expand and will likely lead to further population declines as habitat quality and quantity are reduced.”

According to caribou experts from the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, the company’s conclusion in its application that effects of the mine on the herd would be “not significant” does not “adequately consider the decades of scientific understanding on Telkwa caribou.”

The federal government also weighed in, with Environment and Climate Change Canada saying Telkwa Coal’s application “omits or mischaracterizes” information about the Telkwa caribou herd and that the federal regulator “is of the view that the mitigation measures proposed by the proponent are insufficient to fully mitigate the direct and indirect adverse effects of the project on caribou.”

The company must work with the federal and provincial governments “to appropriately characterize the adverse effects of the project… given the context that the total existing disturbance in the Telkwa herd range already exceeds both federal disturbance thresholds,” it said.

Mark Gray, chairman and managing director for Telkwa Coal, said the company is working to respond to the province’s request for more information. That will include an assessment of the mine's effect on a three-kilometre area around its boundary, rather than the 500-metre buffer zone Telkwa Coal had considered in its original application.

The company is also reviewing water quality related to discharge during and after the mine’s operation and cultural use of the site, including discussions with Wet’suwet’en house groups — consultations Gray said were delayed as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s necessary, it’s fundamental and we were unable to do it,” Gray said.

In an email, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, which represents the nation’s traditional governance system, said it is waiting on responses to several information requests, including a request for socio-cultural information it sent to Telkwa Coal in December.

“Water and caribou are additional [information requests] that are required to be completed as well,” Office of the Wet’suwet’en environmental assessment co-ordinator Mike Ridsdale said.

Like the Treaty 8 nations surrounding the Sukunka mine, the Wet’suwet’en also have a strong legal claim to their traditional territory. Three years ago, the nation began discussions with the provincial and federal governments to resume work on an agreement following the 1997 Delgmuukw-Gisday’wa decision, which affirmed the nation’s title had never been extinguished.

Blueberry River signed its own agreement on development in its traditional territory with the province in January.

Nikki Skuce, co-chair of BC Mining Law Reform and director of Northern Confluence, believes the Yahey court decision and its emphasis on cumulative effects played a role in the EAO’s decision to reject the Sukunka mine.

“I think the decision in the northeast is fascinating because of how it explicitly references cumulative effects and the inability to sufficiently mitigate impacts,” she said.

“The impacts on the northeast are so much more extreme, but they have failed to address cumulative impacts throughout the province,” Skuce added.

While Telkwa Coal had originally been allowed to continue under the old environmental assessment process, the EAO’s request for additional information caused it to miss the mid-December deadline to complete the process within three years of the new environmental regulations taking effect. As a result, the company will now have to fulfil the requirements of the updated environmental assessment process, which places greater emphasis on Indigenous participation, cumulative effects and public participation, according to a government news release.

Gray said he couldn’t comment on the Sukunka decision or what it could signal for Telkwa Coal.

“All we can do is focus on what our project is and apply the legislation and the process to our approach,” he said, adding that a cumulative effects assessment will be incorporated into the application as a result of shifting to the new environmental assessment process.

He expects it will take the company until the middle of this year to gather the additional information and said a decision could be made by the province within a year.

A spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said it couldn’t comment on the project as it continues through the environmental assessment process.

Vanderstar believes that the focus should be on recovering the Telkwa caribou herd rather than just sustaining it — something he said is the objective of the wildlife habitat area.

“The application submitted to the [environmental assessment] office should be looking at how the proposed mine will impact the recovery of caribou,” he said. “Telkwa Coal’s environmental assessment application really failed to address identifying potential impacts to the success of restoring the herd to a healthy population.

“That’s the key point.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy, Environment

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