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Proposed coal mine in Alberta Rockies faces growing calls for federal review

The Tent Mountain project, currently pegged for provincial review, narrowly skirts the production threshold that would automatically trigger a more-stringent federal process

A broad coalition of landowners, conservation advocates and First Nations community members has requested Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson require a federal impact assessment of the Tent Mountain mine project, a proposed coal mine in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. 

Currently, the project is only set to undergo a review overseen by the Alberta Energy Regulator. 

The latest request follows other similar appeals from local ranchers, conservation groups and the tribal governments of the Blood Tribe/Kainai Nation and Siksika Nation, as well as months of backlash over the province’s push to expand coal mining in the Rockies.

The Tent Mountain mine would produce 4,925 tonnes of raw coal daily. A federal assessment is automatically triggered if a project will produce 5,000 tonnes. 

The coalition argues the mine is “exceptionally close” to that threshold. 

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In a letter sent April 4 to Wilkinson, the groups argued the Tent Mountain project “is designed to skirt the thresholds [set out in regulations] to avoid being considered a designated project for a federal impact assessment” and urged the minister to take this into consideration.

Even when a project is under the threshold to automatically trigger an environmental assessment, the minister can still choose to require one. 

The coalition — which includes the Livingston Landowners Group, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Niitsítapi Water Protectors, and is represented by Ecojustice — argues the mine meets numerous criteria for undergoing a federal review, including impacts on fish and fish habitat, species of concern, Indigenous ways of life, the ability of Canada to meet its carbon pollution targets and environmentally sensitive landscapes, among other concerns related to federal jurisdiction. 

The coalition is concerned the provincial review process cannot address the myriad impacts of a coal mine in the region.

“We do not feel that the Alberta Energy Regulator is qualified to assess the project thoroughly and in a way that it needs to be assessed, primarily with the concerns of the impacts that this mining project will have on First Nation, Treaty and Aboriginal rights in the area,” Latasha Calf Robe, co-lead with the Niitsítapi Water Protectors, told The Narwhal.

Advocates say a federal assessment would include a more comprehensive review of the mine’s impacts.

A spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator said in a lengthy emailed response to The Narwhal’s questions that its “review process is comprehensive and ensures that energy development is done in a manner that is safe and environmentally responsible.”

“I’m hopeful that [the federal government] will see the massive amount of adverse impacts will have on the environment, species at risk, Indigenous rights and the overall water quality,” Calf Robe said.

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada told The Narwhal by email that the minister will issue a response to requests to designate a project for federal review by June 1.

Map of Tent Mountain mine and Grassy Mountain mine in Alberta

The proposed Grassy Mountain and Tent Mountain mines are located in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

Tent Mountain mine exempt from coal policy restrictions

Australia-based Montem Resources’ Tent Mountain mine, proposed in southern Alberta near Crowsnest Pass, would produce metallurgical coal used in steel-making.

The company plans to send coal mined at Tent Mountain by train to B.C.’s Westshore Terminal for export to markets including China, Japan, Korea, India, Brazil and western Europe. (Montem Resources did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment.)

The project is not bound by restrictions set out in the 1976 coal policy, which forbade most open-pit mining on category 2 lands. The mine is proposed primarily on category 4 land, which includes sites that were previously mined. Coal was discovered at Tent Mountain in the early 1900s and the site was mined on and off through to the early 1980s.

Despite its mountaintop location, the mine would also not be included in the province’s “outright ban” on mountaintop-removal mining, as the province’s definition of that term does not apply unless the top of a mountain is “completely” removed

Tent Mountain is located near the headwaters of the Oldman River, crucial for drinking water for the prairies and habitat for species at risk including bull trout and western cutthroat trout. 

“The Tent Mountain project is likely to have an impact on many topics under federal jurisdiction,” Katie Morrison, conservation director with the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said in a statement, adding the mine represents “yet another significant increase in industrial activity in the area and deserves a thorough review by the federal assessment agency.”

Tent Mountain mine

The Tent Mountain mine project in southern Alberta is near the borders of B.C. and the United States. Advocates say the Alberta Energy Regulator lacks the ability to examine cumulative impacts across jurisdictions. “[The regulator] is really not well placed to give a proper assessment of this mine,” David Khan, a lawyer with Ecojustice, told The Narwhal. Photo: Callum Gunn

Provincial review ‘inadequate’: letter

Earlier this year, the Alberta Energy Regulator informed Montem Resources that its push to “reinstate” old mining permits — the mine hasn’t operated for approximately 40 years — were not sufficient for the company to forego the environmental assessment process, and ordered the company to conduct an environmental impact assessment. 

The regulator dubbed the company’s plans to be “substantial” and noted it “has received many concerns expressed by the public about coal mining activities in this area. As a consequence, the potential environmental impacts of the proposed recommencement of coal mining at the Tent Mountain mine warrant further consideration under the environmental assessment process.” 

But the groups requesting a federal review assert the provincial regulatory process in Alberta is “inadequate” on its own.

“Starting up a much larger mine after … years of inactivity warrants a thorough federal and provincial review, especially given the proposed mine’s location in our important headwaters region,” Bobbi Lambright, a spokesperson with the Livingstone Landowners Group, said in a statement.

David Khan, a lawyer with Ecojustice who is representing groups requesting a federal assessment told The Narwhal the Alberta Energy Regulator “has a very poor track record on looking at cumulative effects.”

“It has no jurisdiction to look at cumulative effects in B.C. or in the United States or in Manitoba or Saskatchewan, so it’s really not well placed to give a proper assessment of this mine,” he said. In its statement, a spokesperson for the regulator said “the study area for an environmental impact assessment is not limited to the proposed project’s footprint or restricted by provincial boundaries,” adding “where there are potential impacts to lands outside of Alberta, we will inform the affected jurisdiction about the project … In the case of Montem, their proposed project has the potential to have environmental impacts within BC. As such, we have informed BC’s Environmental Assessment Office.”

The groups Khan represents are adamant a federal impact assessment would be better poised to take into account a broader array of issues, and that the Alberta Energy Regulator “has a track record of proponent-friendly approvals.”

“The federal review process is more transparent and there’s more opportunity for public engagement,” Khan said. “It’s certainly more robust.” (The regulator said in its emailed statement that its review “may involve a public hearing to decide whether the project is in the public interest and whether it should be approved.”)

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada told The Narwhal by email it has received the groups’ request to designate the Tent Mountain mine project for federal review and will prepare a recommendation for Minister Wilkinson. (Wilkinson’s office did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment by publication time.)

“The recommendation would consider whether the carrying out of the project may cause adverse effects within federal jurisdiction or adverse direct or incidental effects. In addition, the recommendation would consider the potential impacts of the project on the rights of the Indigenous peoples of Canada,” a spokesperson said by email.

The spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator noted Montem Resources, the company behind the Tent Mountain coal project, had not yet filed all the necessary paperwork to trigger a provincial review and added “it is up to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to determine whether it wants to be involved in reviewing proposed energy development projects.”

Concerns about Indigenous ways of life

In early March, the tribal government of the Kainai Nation and the Office of Chief and Council of the Government of Siksika Nation also submitted requests to have the Tent Mountain mine project assessed by the federal government, listing concerns including contamination of drinking water for members living on Reserve and the hindering of the practice of Aboriginal and Treaty rights.

Calf Robe sees the mine as part of a larger trend of regional impacts related to industrial expansion, and is concerned about the impacts further development will have on her community.

“Given the intimate relationship between First Nations culture, language, ceremonial practices and the intimate relationships with the land there, we can foresee the long-lasting impacts that this will have on our rights to practise our traditional ways of life in the way that we have since time immemorial,” she said.

The Tent Mountain mine project and other proposed developments, she said, “are in essential areas where we continue to practise our ways of life.”

“It’s all tied together in this area. The impacts of mining [lead to] an unfortunate kind of domino effect that will bleed into all areas of life. It’ll go beyond just the right to hunt, trap and gather,” she added.

A federal review, she said, would be better poised to tackle these larger, cross-jurisdictional concerns. The spokesperson for the regulator said its assessment would “consider input from the Aboriginal Consultation Office about matters relating to indigenous consultation and actions that may be required to address potential adverse impacts on Treaty rights and traditional uses.”

“I’m hoping that if [the Tent Mountain mine project] goes through a federal review, the federal government will be more inclined to look at the cumulative impacts of all mining in the area … instead of looking at projects on a project-by-project basis,” Calf Robe said.

Tent Mountain mine

The Tent Mountain mine project and other proposed coal-mining activities “are in essential areas where we continue to practise our ways of life,” Latasha Calf Robe, co-lead with the Niitsítapi Water Protectors, told The Narwhal. Photo: Callum Gunn

Differences between tribal governments and community

The Niitsítapi Water Protectors wanted to submit a separate request to Wilkinson to represent community-level views on mining in the region, according to Calf Robe.

“We are a separate entity operating on a grassroots level. And I think that’s important to highlight because even with the consultation process, it usually is only done with elected leaders,” she said.

“And that doesn’t always encompass the views of the community, or provide opportunities for community-level engagement in First Nations communities,” she added.

For example, the tribal governments of the Blood Tribe/Kainai Nation and Siksika Nation supports the nearby Grassy Mountain mine, proposed by Benga Mining Limited, though both are pushing for a federal review of Tent Mountain.

“Support for the Grassy Mountain Mine Project does not mean that the Blood Tribe will support any further coal mine development in our traditional territory,” the tribal government of the Kainai Nation said in a January statement on Grassy Mountain.

“Chief and Council have clearly and forcefully communicated to the Government of Alberta that the Blood Tribe will not accept further coal mining development in the Crowsnest Pass Region,” it added.

“Other mine projects are proposed in very sensitive and mostly undisturbed areas of the Crowsnest Pass region that have the potential to impact grizzlies, bighorn sheep, elk and bull trout, as well as the headwaters of the Oldman and Livingstone Rivers which are source water to the Blood Tribe.”

Macleay Blades posing for camera

Local ranchers like Mac Blades have also filed requests with the federal government to have the Tent Mountain mine designated for a federal review, citing concerns about the cumulative impacts of mining activity in the region on their grazing lands and water supply for livestock. Photo: Leah Hennel / The Narwhal

Previous request for federal review of coal mine successful

This isn’t the first coal project Ecojustice has flagged to the federal government for an impact assessment. 

Another coal project, the Vista coal mine, applied to expand its operations near Hinton in 2018.

The expansion involved increasing output by approximately 4.2 million tonnes of coal annually. Like the Tent Mountain coal project, the Vista expansion was just barely under the threshold to trigger a federal assessment. 

Khan, the lawyer with Ecojustice said he sees some “parallels” between the Vista expansion and Tent Mountain, and noted “proponents often try to craft their project proposals to avoid federal thresholds.”

In that case, the minister ultimately reversed course on earlier decisions and ordered a federal assessment be completed. 

The company behind the Vista expansion, Coalspur, has since requested a judicial review, alleging Wilkinson acted “unlawfully, unreasonably and unconstitutionally” in designating the project for a federal assessment.

But despite the judicial review, the federal environmental assessment is continuing for the Vista expansion.

Government ‘flip-flopping’ on coal policy: lawyer

This latest development in Alberta’s nearly year-long coal saga comes just as the Alberta government began unveiling its consultation process for a new coal policy.

For months, ranchers, First Nations groups, conservation advocates and country music stars have been voicing concerns about opening up more of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and eastern slopes to potential coal mines.

For Khan, the diversity of voices opposed to coal developments in the region speaks to Albertans’ “lack of confidence in the Alberta government and their flip-flopping on the coal policy.”

“When there’s such a public outcry it means the public is extremely concerned with the project, or the plethora of projects, that are proposed in the Rocky Mountains,” he said. 

“It’s something the minister should really take seriously.”

 

Updated April 9, 2021, at 7 p.m. MT to include an emailed statement provided by the Alberta Energy Regulator

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