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‘Be visible where you stand’: Group of area residents rally for Grassy Mountain

·6 min read

Smoke and haze has dominated the local forecast lately with forest fires raging throughout British Columbia and Washington state. Last Wednesday was a merciful reprieve, however, with blue skies and clear air.

The shift in smoke was fortunate for the Hillcrest Miners Club as the venue was able to keep its doors propped open for a crowd of about 400 people that had gathered to show support for the Grassy Mountain coal mine project.

Dozens of people stood in the street or sat on steps and lawn chairs as it was standing room only inside. The event was organized by local citizens supportive of clean coal development who are looking to rally support from other like-minded Albertans.

Information on how to contact elected officials and the province’s coal committee was circulated during the meeting for those wishing to express support for Benga Mining’s proposed Grassy Mountain mine and those who had been adversely affected by a joint federal-provincial panel that rejected the application.

Located just north of Blairmore, the Grassy Mountain site currently sits unreclaimed after mining activities stopped in the 1960s. Benga Mining purchased the property and began working through the regulatory process in 2015. The company has invested about $800 million throughout the process.

The proposed lifespan of the project is 23 years, with about 93 million tons of metallurgical (steel-making) coal. Cleanup of the abandoned site and overall reclamation would be completed at intervals throughout the project.

The review panel ruled last month that the project’s economic benefits were low to moderate and did not justify the environmental risks, particularly to westslope cutthroat trout and whitebark pine, as well as overall water quality.

Among other things, the core issue the panel found with Benga’s application was a lack of information regarding environmental protection and reclamation, stating Benga’s plans were “overly optimistic and not supported by the evidence provided.”

The company has since filed for permission to appeal the decision on the grounds that procedural errors made by the panel did not provide a fair decision. Piikani Nation and Stoney Nakoda Nations have also filed for permission to appeal.

Gary Houston, vice-president of external relations for Benga, spoke during the pro-coal rally in Hillcrest. He said the panel’s project denial was unprecedented and unexpected for all involved, especially since projects like the oilsands in northern Alberta are usually approved subject to conditions.

Mr. Houston said the panel finding Benga had not provided enough information was unfair, especially since the Alberta Energy Regulator would not recommend a public hearing until enough information was submitted.

“We put forward a really good plan for the project,” he said, adding the company had subject experts from across Canada and the United States working to provide a detailed report for over four years.

Specific issues like selenium pollution also couldn’t be fully addressed until operations began, he continued.

“By the very nature of mining you have to address that as you go along,“ Mr. Houston said. “Ultimately, we don’t believe the right reasons were put forward [by the committee].”

Guy Gilron, a registered professional biologist from British Columbia with nearly 30 years of experience in ecotoxicology and ecological human health risk assessment, said the panel’s concerns with selenium and water quality were adequately addressed by Benga.

While acknowledging concerns with selenium leaching in the Elk Valley from coal mines, he said the issue didn’t apply as much to Grassy Mountain because the issue with selenium in B.C. was not properly understood over the decades of mining activity and selenium management has vastly improved.

“Managing waste rock properly will take care of selenium,” he said. “Water discharged from coal mines is effectively managed.”

Benga’s adaptive management strategy was a good fit for the project because a mine’s environmental issues were site-specific, Mr. Gilron continued, and adjusting practice as the project progressed was the best way to handle those issues.

He also said it was important to understand the economic benefits that could be reaped while protecting the environment because it was in a coal company’s best interest to go above and beyond regulatory requirements.

Emphasizing these facts was an important way to reclaim the narrative of coal development which had been established in the negative by media, he continued.

“Journalists and journalism in general already have in their mind what the story is and then they fill out the gaps with what you say. I’ve had to fight to make sure my story gets told,” Mr. Gilron said.

“It’s very important to see all aspects of this.”

Residents were given an opportunity during the meeting to express their views and how the project denial impacted them.

Many expressed frustration that the panel was prioritizing fish over the community’s vitality; others said relying solely on tourism as an industry was inadequate as Crowsnest Pass would never be able to grow into a tourist destination like Banff or Canmore.

Lucas Michalsky, owner and founder of Dark Horse Electric, spoke about how the project rejection limits his business and ability to hire more employees. Addressing an abandoned coal site, he continued, would only come about by Benga mining and reclaiming the area. Undue concern that the environment would be irreversibly damaged ignored the technological development the mining industry has gone through, Mr. Michalsky added.

“You can’t tell me that we can launch a billionaire to space but can’t produce coal safely,” he said. “Technology can coexist mines and ranches and bring prosperity and families back to the community. We’ve been ignored by this country for too long.”

The evening’s officiator, former Calgary Centre MP Eric Lowther, encouraged attendees to communicate their views and share why they support the proposed mine.

“Be visible where you stand,” he said. “There was lots of noise from the other side and we just trusted the process and the process let us down. It appears to be more of a political process than scientific, so share your impact statements.”

Sending letters to elected officials, Mr. Lowther continued, was an important way for those in favour of the mine to turn the tide on negative public sentiment.

“We need to tell our elected officials that if they keep doing stuff like this they won’t be re-elected again,” he said.

Organizers plan on holding another event sometime next month. Information on writing to government officials to support coal mines can be found online at bit.ly/AB_metallurgical. Online feedback is also being sought from the provincial coal committee at www.alberta.ca/coal-policy-engagement.aspx.

Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze

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