SUNDRE — Responding to a recent delegation to council that expressed concerns about plans to expand coal mining operations in the Rocky Mountains, Alberta’s minister of Environment and Parks told local officials there aren't several mines being applied for.
“There is no new plans to bring in more new coal projects” said Jason Nixon, who spoke on June 28 by videoconference during the return to in-person council meetings for the first time since chambers were closed as a result of the pandemic and subsequently redesigned and modified with plastic barriers to accommodate distancing.
“Inside our constituency, there is no mine — that I am aware of — that is going through the application and regulatory process,” he said.
Nixon, who is also the Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre riding’s MLA, was joined by deputy minister Bev Yee, upon receiving an invitation from council to respond to concerns that have been raised about the potential for selenium contamination as well as water allocations and future impacts on other sectors from ranching and farming to tourism and municipalities.
The environment minister said there are no plans to bring in more new coal projects or make it easier for companies to set up operations.
“We have not changed any environmental regulations when it comes to regulating coal inside our province.”
Following the recent denial of the proposed Grassy Mountain coal mine near Crowsnest Pass, another proposed open-pit coal mine on Tent Mountain was submitted for a federal review. That mine, while technically not "new," would involve a substantial expansion of an existing operation, also located near Crowsnest Pass.
“The project would involve the resumption of mining at a surface coal mine, a coal preparation plant and associated infrastructure including a coal conveyor system and a rail load-out facility. The total project area would be confined to the existing mine permit area of 750 hectares and the mine production would average 1.2 million tonnes of metallurgical coal per year,” reads information on the Alberta government website that was last updated Feb. 17, 2021.
Nixon pointed to the Grassy Mountain mine project’s denial as proof the regulatory system works, and said politicians do not make such decisions, which are rather dealt with through provincial and federal regulators depending on the proposed project’s footprint.
“When we say that the environmental rules are in place inside the province, we’re serious,” he said, adding a litany of legislation including for example the Water Act as well as the Fish and Wildlife Act must be adhered to before any company would be able to proceed with a project.
There are also rules in place regarding selenium that require companies to submit a mitigation plan that would satisfy the Alberta Energy Regulator, he said.
Coun. Paul Isaac said following the presentation that a mine in B.C.’s Elk Valley operated by Teck Resources ended up contaminating a downstream waterway with selenium despite installing a $600-million wastewater treatment plant.
“When fish carcasses started turning up, they were given a fine of $1.4 million. So, obviously selenium is very serious,” said Isaac.
“Hopefully, your regulatory systems will never allow anything like that to happen,” he said.
Nixon said he was not familiar with that specific instance, but reiterated the stringent regulatory process that Alberta has in place.
No new water allocations
Yee said no new water allocations would be granted, and that the only way to obtain one would be by transferring an existing licence from a current holder.
“There is a lot of misinformation going around about (how) there could be eight brand new coal mines that use water,” she said.
“In the South Saskatchewan River Basin, we have a water management plan…there will be no new water allocations given in the southern basin.”
And without water, a project cannot proceed, she said, adding that applies not only to coal companies but all industry.
“They would have to seek water allocation transfers. So, we will never exceed what the water quantity guidelines are in that basin,” she said, adding the same applies to water quality guidelines.
“The basin is closed to new applications. We’re not giving out any further water,” she stressed.
Responding to concerns raised by the delegates who previously told council no fines have ever been levied by the Alberta government on a company after selenium increases were detected downstream, Yee said, “We’d have to go back to look, but if they are within their standard for their approval, and they release into the river, there would not be any kind of fine or level attached to that.”
A detected increase in selenium levels would trigger the province to investigate to try and determine the source, which could be from a coal mine or from natural selenium in rocks, she said.
“If we’re not levying fines, it means that the company was fully in compliance with its approval,” she said.
Nixon said no monitoring stations have been mothballed, and added budgeted environmental monitoring funding remains stable at about $20 million with more than 100 stations throughout the province. Some of the stations, he said, remain permanently in certain areas while others are moved around.
“Minimal letters” from constituency
Coun. Richard Warnock wanted to know where letters of concerns were largely coming from.
“Is this an Eastern Slopes issue, or has your office been getting this from all areas in Alberta,” asked Warnock.
Nixon said the provincial government keeps track of such correspondence, and said his office had received “very minimal letters” with regards to coal mining from inside his constituency.
“We do get a lot of letters from outside of the constituency,” he added.
Isaac also asked about a meeting Nixon had with Robin Campbell, Coal Association of Canada president and former PC Environment minister, days after the 2019 election, and whether the provincial government works closely with its counterparts in B.C.
“We stay in touch with BC Environment, and we compare notes on water quality and ambient conditions,” answered Yee.
As for meeting with industry representatives, she said that is common.
“I get visited by companies all the time, not just coal companies — oil and gas companies, forestry companies,” she said.
“They come in to ask questions about the regulatory system. They want to understand the regulatory system so that they know what they’re required to do” including consulting with Indigenous communities, she said.
“That is not unusual — it’s not about getting a short cut to anything,”
Coun. Charlene Preston asked what kind of boost to the provincial economy people could expect if a new mine were to be applied for and approved.
“Given the quality of coal in the Eastern Slopes, if an application was made, what could that mean for our economy?” she said.
Nixon said he is aware that there is a significant market value difference between thermal and metallurgical coal, but added Sonya Savage, Alberta’s Energy minister, would be better suited to answer that question.
“I don’t know all the numbers,” said Nixon, later adding his ministry’s focus revolves around the regulatory processes and protections.
“The department of energy would probably be better equipped to answer that than I am.”
Yee added that estimating benefits such as jobs would only be possible once a detailed proposal outlining a project’s scope has been submitted.
Mayor Terry Leslie expressed gratitude for the minister and his deputy’s time.
“We get asked a lot about taking a position that is not within our job description, so to speak,” said Leslie, adding council has not taken a position in the issue of coal mining.
Sundre is a member of the Red Deer River Municipal Users Group and the Watershed Alliance, organizations that make available information to help municipal council make better, more informed decisions, he said.
“From a council member’s perspective, these are provincial matters, not municipal matters, so to speak,” the mayor said.
The subject of whether the provincial government would — in the event a company applies for a proposed project — require full bonding upfront to cover the costs of future reclamation, was not brought up during the nearly 40-minute discussion.
Council unanimously carried a motion to accept the presentation for information.