An application for the highly controversial Grassy Mountain coal mine has been turned down by a joint federal-provincial regulatory panel.
“We find that the project’s significant adverse environmental effects on surface water quality and westslope cutthroat trout and habitat outweigh the low to moderate positive economic impacts of the project,” the panel for the Alberta Energy Regulator said in its ruling.
“Therefore, we find that the project is not in the public interest.”
The decision sinks the hopes of the Australian company that wanted to mine up to 100 million tonnes of metallurgical coal (used for steel making) at the site over a 23-year period. The project was first proposed five years ago but initially flew under the public radar. Then news leaked that in May of last year, the UCP government had quietly cancelled a 1976 policy that had put wide swaths of the foothills and Rocky Mountains off limits for coal exploration and development.
Despite the low-key announcement during the pandemic, word soon spread and opposition mounted. Public pressure from ranchers, Indigenous groups, landowners, environmentalists and even celebrity musicians such as Paul Brandt and Corb Lund forced the government to reinstate the coal policy in February.
One of the key concerns was that selenium, which is released by coal mining, would pollute waterways and affect everyone from ranchers in the area to downstream users, including irrigators.
The Alberta Energy Regulator panel backed those concerns and said the mining company’s claim that it could capture up to 98 per cent of selenium being released was based on “several optimistic and non-conservative assumptions” and “unlikely to achieve this capture efficiency.”
The panel’s decision was hailed by opponents.
“We take heart from the panel’s decision and their recognition of the significant adverse environmental consequences associated with the Grassy Mountain proposal,” said Bobbi Lambright of the Livingstone Landowners Group, a group of ranchers and other property owners near the proposed mine.
“We have always seen Grassy Mountain as the litmus test for other coal development in the area. So this decision is a significant milestone in our ongoing fight for full, permanent protection of our headwaters.”
Groups opposed to coal mining say the threat hasn’t ended, as more mines have been proposed. But the provincial government said the Grassy Mountain decision shows adequate protections are in place.
“All proposed coal projects are subject to stringent review to ensure development is safe, environmentally responsible and meets all requirements,” Energy Minister Sonya Savage and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said in a joint statement.
“In this case, the process worked as it should.”
The review panel decision comes on the heels of the federal government’s surprise announcement that it will subject all proposed coal mines to an environmental review. Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said concerns about selenium prompted the move.
But the Alberta Energy Regulator panel had other concerns. In addition to affecting water quality and trout habitat, “the project is likely to result in” adverse impacts on “whitebark pine, rough fescue grasslands, and vegetation species and community biodiversity” and have “significant adverse effects on physical and cultural heritage of some First Nations.”