Grassy Mountain Coal Project
Joint Review Panel Denies Applications for Grassy Mountain Coal Project
On June 17, 2021, a joint review panel denied Benga Mining Limited’s applications for the Grassy Mountain Coal Project. The panel found the project is not in the public interest under Alberta’s Coal Conservation Act because its significant environmental impacts outweigh its economic benefits. Ackroyd LLP’s Ifeoma Okoye and Richard Secord represented the Coalition of Alberta Wilderness Association and the Grassy Mountain Group in opposing the project at the public hearing.
Benga applied to the Alberta Energy Regulator in October 2017 for approval to build, operate, and reclaim an open-pit metallurgical coal mine on a 1521-hectare area in Crowsnest Pass in southwest Alberta. The project involved surface mine pits, waste rock disposal areas, a coal-handling and processing facility, and water management, overland conveyer, and rail loadout systems. It would produce up to 4.5 million tonnes of metallurgical coal annually for 23 years through blasting and truck-and-shovel mining. Benga’s environmental impact assessment forecasted that its mitigation measures would likely prevent the project from having significant adverse effects on the environment.
In August 2018, the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change and the Alberta Energy Regulator established a joint review panel to evaluate the project under the Coal Conservation Act, the Responsible Energy Development Act, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Water Act, the Public Lands Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012. The panel conducted a virtual public hearing from October 27 to December 2, 2020.
The panel’s assessment primarily rested on the Coal Conservation Act, which requires a determination that a project is in the public interest for approval. The panel considered potential impacts on Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests, the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan that governs the Crowsnest Pass, the views of hearing participants, and the project’s anticipated environmental, social, and economic impacts. It concluded that the project is not in the public interest because its significant adverse environmental impacts, particularly on surface water quality and westslope cutthroat trout, outweigh its low to moderate economic benefits.
The panel found that the project would contaminate surface waters within the sensitive mountain environment of Crowsnest Pass with selenium and other contaminants. Though Benga projected it could achieve target selenium levels by using saturated backfill zones, the panel found that these projections were overly optimistic, lacked evidence, and did not adequately consider other mitigation strategies. Given that the site could release contaminants for decades after the mine’s closure, the panel found that Benga underestimated long-term monitoring costs and expressed concern that these costs might fall on Alberta taxpayers. For threatened westslope cutthroat trout in Blairmore and Gold Creeks, the panel found that selenium and calcites from the project would significantly impact federally protected critical habitat identified as important in the federal Recovery Strategy-Action Plan (2019). It found that Benga’s assessments and mitigation measures were optimistic and limited. The panel also found that the project would have significant adverse effects on vegetation and wetlands, particularly on endangered whitebark pine and protected rough fescue grasslands. It found that the collective loss of vegetation and biodiversity in the project area would likely persist for over 100 years. However, it found that the projected loss of forests, organic wetlands, vegetation species important to Indigenous communities, and rare plants in the project area would not be significant. The panel also found that the project would likely contribute to the significant existing cumulative impacts on little brown bats and grizzly bears, even though on its own the project would not likely affect them significantly.
In addition to its significant environmental impacts, the panel also found that the project would have adverse but insignificant environmental impacts on wildlife; surface water quantity and flow; groundwater quantity, flow, and quality; air quality; greenhouse gas emissions; and noise, light, and visual aesthetics. While Benga provided reclamation plans for restoring the land after the mine’s closure, the panel found it was uncertain whether these long-term mitigation measures would be feasible and effective. The panel also identified unlikely potential risks to human health but noted the uncertainty surrounding these risks because Benga did not provide appropriately conservative estimates.
In terms of social impacts, the panel found the project, located on Treaty 7 territory, would have adverse but not significant effects on Indigenous groups in the region by taking away lands used for traditional activities and harvesting. It also found that the project would have significant adverse impacts on physical and cultural heritage for the Káínai, Piikani, and Siksika First Nations and contribute to significant existing cumulative impacts on their land-use for traditional purposes. It identified low to moderate impacts on Aboriginal and treaty rights for Treaty 7 First Nations, the Ktunaxa Nation, and the Métis Region 3. It could not fully assess the socioeconomic impacts of the project on Indigenous groups because these impacts would be experienced differently across groups and individuals. The panel noted, however, that many of the Indigenous groups with asserted or established Aboriginal and treaty rights in the region had signed agreements with Benga and written letters stating they did not oppose the project because Benga had addressed their concerns.
The panel concluded that the project would have moderate economic benefits for Crowsnest Pass and minor benefits for Alberta and Canada. It found the project would boost the regional economy by creating well-paying jobs, increasing spending, and providing municipal government revenue and would generate federal and provincial royalties and income taxes. However, the panel found that the magnitude of the benefits was uncertain because Benga had likely overstated its estimates and did not provide the methodology and modelling behind them. The panel also found that these economic benefits would likely be offset to some degree by negative impacts on regional tourism and recreation, future reductions in demand for coal, and declines in coal quality over the mine’s life.
In its capacity as a review panel under the Alberta Energy Regulator, the panel accordingly denied Benga’s applications for the Grassy Mountain Coal Project under the Coal Conservation Act for not being in the public interest because its environmental impacts outweigh its economic benefits. It noted that its decision was driven by the anticipated significant adverse effects on surface water quality and westslope cutthroat trout. Because this denial made Benga’s other applications redundant, it also denied its applications under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Water Act, and the Public Lands Act. In its capacity under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012, the panel submitted its report to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change with its conclusions and recommendations regarding the project’s environmental impacts.
To access a full copy of the joint review panel’s decision, please click here.
To access the executive summary of the decision, please click here.