Critics slam proposed coal mining on eastern slopes at NDP town hall meeting

Austrialian-based Northback Holdings has resurrected a proposal for a steelmaking coal mine on Grassy Mountain in the Crowsnest Pass

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Critics expressed frustration and concern over a potential coal mining operation on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, in an online town hall meeting held by the Opposition NDP Wednesday night.

Austrialian-based Northback Holdings, formerly known as Benga Mining, resurrected last month a proposal for a steelmaking coal mine on Grassy Mountain in the Crowsnest Pass. The company has applied to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) for licences that would allow the company to divert water, drill and explore for coal.

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But an Alberta ministerial order, issued last year by former environment minister Sonya Savage, pauses coal mine exploration and development across much of the province’s Rocky Mountains and eastern slopes, with the pause remaining in effect while land-use plans are being completed and specific rules for industrial development are being determined. 

“I’m hearing from a lot of people (in the Grassy Mountain area) and across the province who are worried about what impact this will have on our landscape, our ecosystem and our economy, and I have those same concerns,” said Calgary MLA Kathleen Ganley, the NDP’s energy critic, during the meeting.

“While it’s discouraging to see the government trying to push ahead with this once again, it’s conversations like this that give me hope that we can build widespread support to stop mining in these areas.”

There’s “increasing evidence” that the UCP government intends to move forward again with coal mining in the eastern slopes, said Ganley.

“Companies don’t spend money doing exploratory drilling on projects that are a definite no,” she said. “We suggest that they know something that we don’t.”

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The NDP has twice introduced its Eastern Slopes Protection Act, but the governing UCP has refused to debate the proposed legislation, said Ganley.

“The bill would have enshrined protection of the Rocky Mountains in legislation, which would make it more difficult for future governments to remove those protections,” said Ganley.

The short- and long-term effects the project would have on the environment, drinking water and tourism outweigh the “limited royalties” the province would receive from the project, she said.

“The business case for coal mining in the eastern slopes just isn’t there,” said Ganley.

The NDP has asked questions about coal mining during the first two days of the current sitting of the legislature, said Ganley.

“We are bringing this to the legislature, right from day one, and I can’t imagine we’re going to stop any time soon — not until the minister gives me an answer I’m satisfied with, which probably will be never.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, attended by over 100 participants, concerns were raised about the effects the proposed Grassy Mountain project would have on water, the environment, at-risk species such as trout and grizzly bears, and Indigenous treaty rights.

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“No further coal mining should go ahead,” said one speaker. “It doesn’t just put fish, grizzlies and the whatever at risk — it puts all of us at risk.”

In a statement Thursday to Postmedia, the office of Alberta Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean said the province is keeping “strong restrictions in place” on coal mining.

“The applications for these exploration drilling activities are being reviewed by the AER,” the statement reads. “An application does not necessarily mean it will be approved. The 2022 Ministerial Order stops applications on coal projects but does allow for exceptions for applications from active coal mines, from advanced coal projects and applications for safety and security activities.”

The Grassy Mountain qualifies as an advanced coal project because the project has had a project summary and an environmental impact assessment filed with the AER for several years before the 2022 ministerial order, Jean’s office said in the statement.

Northback Holdings did not respond to Postmedia’s request for comment.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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