Alberta coal test mine continues without necessary permits, groups say

Environmental groups say an Alberta coal mine has begun building an underground testing facility without required federal permits.

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Environmental groups are calling on Ottawa to enforce its rules at an Alberta coal site that has begun building an underground test mine without the fishing permits officials say are necessary.

“They can’t just sit back and wait for habitat destruction to occur,” said Ecojustice attorney Dan Cheater. “We would like to see them perform.”

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Coalspur Mines is planning a major expansion of its Vista thermal coal mine near Hinton, Alta., which would make it the largest thermal coal mine in North America. The company is also planning an underground test mine at the site to determine the feasibility of underground mining.

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In 2020, then-federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson ordered a joint federal-provincial review of both the expansion and the test mine. That review failed last fall when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Ottawa Impact Assessment Act was unconstitutional.

But by then the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had reviewed plans for both projects and decided it required permits under two different laws.

“DFO indicated that physical activities would require a Fisheries Act authorization,” says the Canadian Impact Assessment Agency’s 2021 analysis report.

“Physical activities may also require the exercise of powers … such as a Species at Risk Act permit for impacts on Athabasca steelhead or other at-risk species.”

The department has been in contact with Coalspur but has not launched an investigation, Fisheries spokesman Robert Rombouts said.

“The company is required to comply with laws and failure to comply may result in enforcement action,” he said in an email.

Meanwhile, work has begun on the underground mine.

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“The company has started construction work, but it is limited to the underground portion of the mine,” said an email from Renato Gandia, spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator.

“Coalspur has not commenced mining activities at the Vista Test underground mine. As of December 31, 2023, no coal has been mined in the underground mine and the portal has not been constructed.”

The company received all necessary provincial permits for the test mine. Coalspur has argued that because the test mine does not expand its overall footprint, no additional permits are required.

“The (test mine) simply represents an alternative mining method within the limits of the existing and approved permit,” the project description reads. “The (test mine) does not represent additional disturbance beyond the boundaries of the existing Phase I permit area.”

Coalspur officials did not respond to an interview request.

Coalspur Mines Hinton Alberta
File photo of the Coalspur Vista Project area near Hinton, Alberta, seen in 2014. Supplied/Coalspur Mines Ltd.

Concerns were noted regarding the impact of the test mine on nearby streams

Federal officials found several reasons for concern, including possible changes to nearby streams due to underground mine dewatering and impacts of underground mining on groundwater.

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“The (test mine) includes mining below tributaries of McPherson Creek,” the assessment agency’s analysis says. “The processing and management of waste associated with physical activity also has the potential to negatively impact critical habitat, due to the location of tributaries in and around the…lease area within which it is located (the proof)”.

The area’s waterways are habitat for the endangered Athabasca rainbow trout and the bull trout, Alberta’s provincial fish.

Ecojustice, representing two local environmental groups, has written two letters to the federal Department of Fisheries asking it to enforce the rules before damage is done.

“We know what will happen once work has begun on both the underground mine and this future expansion,” Cheater said. “The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has confirmed what the expected impacts are.

“Anyway, Coalspur moves on.”

A renewed environmental assessment law is expected this spring, and a draft coal mine effluent regulation is expected in the fall, Environment Canada spokesperson Kaitlin Power said in an email.

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“The Vista coal mine, if it moves forward, is expected to be subject to these regulations,” he wrote.

“Regardless of whether the Vista Underground Coal Mine Project and the Mina Vista Phase II Expansion Project in Alberta undergo a federal impact assessment, they must comply with all relevant federal statutes. As such, they may require federal permits or authorizations.”

Cheater said companies should not be able to take advantage of an artificial loophole in environmental legislation while Ottawa amends it.

“We are in an interim period where projects like this and potentially others will not be subject to an environmental assessment. But that doesn’t mean the federal government can shirk its obligations to protect the environment.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2024.

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