BOW VALLEY – The Bow Valley’s MLA is calling on the Alberta government to block all coal mining operations in the eastern slopes after the same company, rejected under another name in 2021, recently reapplied for exploration and drilling in the Grassy Mountain area.
In a letter to Alberta’s minister responsible for energy and minerals, Banff-Kananaskis NDP MLA Sarah Elmeligi and NDP critic for environment Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse demanded an “immediate public commitment” from the province to prevent any new mining applications from coming forward.
“We are very disturbed to learn that Northback Holdings, formerly Benga Mining Ltd., is applying to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) to drill 46 new exploratory boreholes in the Grassy Mountain area, along with all of the disturbances that come with such work,” the letter to minister Brian Jean states.
“Albertans require a clear statement that you will not allow new coal mining or related activities in the eastern slopes.”
In 2021, Benga Mining’s proposal for an open-pit coal mine in the Rockies near the community of Crowsnest Pass, was met with public outcry and rejected by provincial and federal regulators.
A federal-provincial review panel that included the AER, decided the Grassy Mountain mine was not in the public’s best interest and its report cast doubt on Australian mining giant Riverside Resources – owner of Benga Mining – and its ability to regulate the release of selenium from the mine into the Oldman watershed.
Selenium, a vital, naturally occurring element often found in rocks and soil, can be toxic in slightly higher amounts and is commonly released by coal mining.
Several studies link toxic amounts of selenium in waterways with reproductive failure in fish, along with birth defects, damage to gills and internal organs. In humans, toxic amounts of the element consumed through contaminated drinking water or fish, can cause liver damage.
A study by the province ‘Water quality in the McLeod River as an indicator for mining impacts and reclamation success,’ looked at the McLeod River downstream from three coal mines in the province from 2005-2006. It found elevated levels of selenium exceeding limits for the protection of aquatic species.
Later that year, the Alberta government announced it would review its rules around selenium in its management framework.
Riverside’s new proposal under Northback Holdings is considered an advanced coal project by the AER, which is responsible for accepting and processing applications related to coal exploration and development.
Ministerial order defines an advanced coal project as a project for which the proponent has submitted a project summary to the AER for the purpose of determining whether an environmental impact assessment is required.
Northback previously submitted a project summary and environmental impact assessment, said AER spokesperson Teresa Broughton in an email.
“While that project summary and EIA was submitted for its previous coal mine applications (Benga Grassy Mountain), that project summary and EIA can be used for any future applications for coal development,” she said.
“If an applicant meets AER requirements, including the requirements under the ministerial order, the AER cannot prohibit a company from filing an application.”
In 2020, the UCP government tried to open areas of the province to coal mining and was met with public backlash, resulting in the province reversing its decision and reinstating the 1976 Peter Lougheed-era Coal Policy, which acts to safeguard parts of the Rockies.
A ministerial order was also signed to provide direction on coal development in Alberta.
The order cancelled coal leases and approvals in category 1 and 2 lands, with category 2 lands subject to ministerial permission. It applied similar criteria on category 3 and 4 lands, with exceptions for currently operational mines.
The Grassy Mountain mining project was included among the exemptions specified, but the proposed plans for the mine were denied.
“You have all these different bodies that have already rejected this mine. Now we’re talking about a new exploration proposal for a new mine in the same area,” said Elmeligi.
“Why? How did that happen? Albertans don’t want this, and it’s unclear to me how we’re even having this conversation.”
There were however some that tried to appeal the provincial-federal panel’s decision to reject the proposal, including Stoney Nakoda Nation.
In 2021, the governing body of Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, comprised of Chiniki, Bearspaw and Goodstoney First Nation, filed a request to appeal the decision on Grassy Mountain.
In its application Stoney Nakoda Nation stated “the (panel) did not properly assess the impact that rejecting the project would have on Stoney Nakoda Aboriginal and treaty rights and economic interests related to the accommodation of those rights.”
Riverside anticipated the mine would create 500 jobs during construction and an extra 400 jobs over its 23-year operation, with $1.7 billion in royalties and $35 million in municipal taxes committed over that time.
Piikani First Nation, downstream of the proposed mine on the Old Man River, filed a similar request, but the Alberta Court of Appeal declined to hear both appeals.
Goodstoney Chief Clifford Poucette said the newest application at Grassy Mountain hasn’t been discussed among tribal council yet, but that it’s likely to come up soon. Until then, he said he can’t speculate where all three Nations stand on the project.
“The closest of our reserves to that area is Eden Valley, and we have to make sure all three of our bands are on the same side on this,” said Poucette. “And we need to be properly consulted.”
Bearspaw and Chiniki leadership were not immediately available to the Outlook for comment.
Eden Valley is about 120 kilometres north of the proposed mining area, but before borders and treaties were introduced, the Îyârhe Nakoda’s territory was expansive and overlapped with other area First Nations.
Poucette said more consultation should have been given to all Indigenous stakeholders with connection to the land.
Kainai First Nation, part of the Blackfoot Federacy, openly stated it would not appeal the decision and further, that the Nation “remains concerned about coal projects in the Crowsnest Pass region, and in particular on the headwaters of the Oldman River watershed.”
Its statement further noted the Nation would oppose any future coal mining projects.
On two separate occasions, the NDP has introduced the Eastern Slopes Protection Act in the Legislature. The bill, if passed would put a stop to coal mining in the area.
“Selenium pollution is probably the greatest concern because it is potentially very far-reaching as water moves from the mountains down through the grasslands,” said Elmeligi, whose background is in conservation and biology.
As the NDP’s critic for recreation, sport and tourism, Elmeligi said the impact to the visitor economy and the value many place on the eastern slopes as a destination must also be considered.
As the eastern slopes feel more pressure from development and visitation, the Banff-Kananaskis MLA said the province will be forced to make “hard decisions” to ensure responsible and sustainable land use.
“I think increasingly, we’re being faced with the realization that the eastern slopes are a relatively small piece of land and the pressures on it are increasing,” said Elmeligi.
“We’re being faced with very hard decisions as a society, deciding what we want the eastern slopes to look like and to be like, and what we want to use this land for.”
The Outlook reached out to the Ministry of Energy and Minerals for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.