After a federal-provincial review panel gave a resounding thumbs down to the Grassy Mountain coal project Thursday, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage and so-called Environment Minister Jason Nixon issued a contrite statement.
It is always remarkable to watch political wolves act like sheep.
Both ministers, who have championed open-pit mining in the Rockies by Australian companies (Nixon even had the gall to write a letter of support for one group of speculators), said they would respect the unequivocal rejection by the Alberta Energy Regulator.
“In this case, the process worked as it should,” said the sheepish ministers in a joint statement.
But that’s simply not true. The system only worked because it was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the real world by the people of Alberta.
Unlike the Jason Kenney government, Albertans understand in a visceral way that water is the only true treasure in an arid land, and that mountain brooks quickly lose their song if we dig up all the rocks for coking coal to fuel steel mills.
Let’s be clear. A functioning system would never have considered planting an economically dodgy open-pit coal mine in the middle of a critical watershed that supplies clean water to more than a million Canadians any more than the City of Calgary would consider putting a latrine next to a public swimming pool.
Nor would an accountable system line up another seven projects in the same watershed and pretend it’s a good idea.
But three powerful events forced a corrupt system, which typically never says no to Big Capital, to reject the coal project: democracy, public science and shoddy environmental work by Benga Mining, which is owned by the Australian billionaire Gina Rinehart.
Let’s begin with the latter: Benga’s poor environmental assessment. Lorne Fitch, a veteran of numerous public hearings and a retired provincial fish biologist, said it was probably the worst document he had ever read.
It was so deficient that federal government repeatedly asked the company for more information over a four-year period. Yet significant details on impacts on water and fish never surfaced. Benga’s performance, as the panel’s decision details in depth, made it almost impossible for even Alberta regulators to approve the project.
The second factor that insured the project’s demise was raw democracy in the form of tens of thousands of Albertans.
Citizens of all stripes and colours formed a loose coalition to defend water quality and the beauty of the Rockies’ eastern slopes. They simply had the good sense to say no to coal bullshit. If anything, the Alberta government has belatedly learned that it is probably not a good idea to piss off Corb Lund, a great musician who hates politics but loves the mountains.
This giant public wave of protest, probably the largest and longest demonstration for water security and the environment in the history of Alberta, forced the Kenney government to backtrack on its many backroom deals with Aussie coal miners.
The third factor was the power of science marshalled by grassroots organizations in the absence of any responsible leadership by the Alberta government.
Not trusting the government or its regulatory process, the Livingstone Landowners Group, for example, hired six prominent scientists, including Alberta’s respected land use ecologist Brad Stelfox, to model the impacts of proposed projects on water security in an arid county.
The group’s comprehensive study, which the government should have performed years ago, found even limited coking coal mining would create intractable problems with water quality and quantity, including selenium contamination. Climate change only compounds the risks.
So democracy, science and Benga’s poor work all ganged up on a dysfunctional system and forced yaysayers to become naysayers.
Given these forces, the joint review panel concluded that the mine, which would have knocked the top off 15 square kilometres of the Rockies in the Crowsnest Pass, was, as a testy Sid Marty told them, “the wrong project, in the wrong place, in the wrong century.”
They concluded what was obvious to Albertans a long time ago: that the mine would result “in significant adverse environmental effects on surface water quality, westslope cutthroat trout and their habitat, whitebark pine, rough fescue grasslands, and vegetation species and community biodiversity.”
Benga Mining claimed during a public hearing last year that its mountain-top removal project wouldn’t have any significant impacts on fish or water, because it had effective ways to mitigate them. (Mitigate is one of those nasty plastic words that industry and government just love because it can justify the murder of wild places.)
But the panel simply didn’t believe the company any more than Albertans did.
“We find that in some cases the claimed effectiveness of the proposed measures was overly optimistic and not supported by the evidence provided,” found the panel. “As a result, we are not confident about the technical and economic feasibility of some proposed mitigation measures.”
Selenium was also a big issue. In neighbouring B.C., Teck Resources has polluted waterways with selenium leaching from its coking coal mines.
But Benga promised to keep the toxic chemical out of Alberta waterways with a spiffy new technology called “a saturated backfill zone.” The company vowed the technology would capture 95 to 98 per cent of its selenium, even though no other metallurgical coal company has ever achieved this goal.
Once again, the panel said they didn’t believe Benga.
“Benga did not provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the saturated backfill zones can achieve the high degree of effectiveness necessary at the scale of this project.”
The company also promised to do a bang-up job putting the mountain back together again with its reclamation schemes.
But the panel didn’t find them credible.
“We are not confident that all of Benga’s proposed reclamation measures are technically feasible and would result in the restoration of important vegetation species and communities removed during development of the project.”
The panel also didn’t buy Benga’s claims about economic benefits. The company, for instance, said it would enrich government coffers with $30 million a year in royalties, even though the province only charges a one-per-cent royalty for coking coal.
“However, as Benga did not submit key methodological details and models to support its estimates, we are not able to verify the magnitude of the estimated benefits. Additionally, we are not confident that Benga’s estimate of future royalty payments of $30 million per year is accurate,” the panel concluded.
And the panel didn’t think that Benga Mining would benefit First Nations, though the company diligently secured secret impact benefit agreements with many leaders.
But many Blackfoot opposed the project. They said it would destroy a sacred landscape where the creator of this world Napi (Old Man) once played and roamed. What kind of company puts a coal mine in the heart of a people’s genesis story?
And so the panel found that the project would have a “significant adverse effect on physical and cultural heritage for the Káínai, Piikani and Siksika.”
Decisions of this nature in Alberta are as rare as hen’s teeth.
It’s instructive that panel reached its conclusions without hearing a shred of evidence from the fish and water experts working for the people of Alberta, because their government did not allow them to testify.
Not one scientist from the Kenney government spoke about water security or the hazards of selenium during the hearing.
In other words, the panel relied solely on evidence presented by the Timberwolf Conservation Society, the M.D. of Ranchland, the Livingstone Landowners Group, the Alberta Wilderness Association, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, private landowners, local naturalists, eastern slope ranchers and federal scientists.
It was a mass of organized citizens concerned about water that forced a government to make the “system” work.
Nor has the power of democracy finished fighting the desperately wrong idea of planting coal mines in the Rockies, noted Ian Urquhart, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association.
“The Grassy Mountain decision, combined with federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson’s decision to subject all proposed metallurgical coal mines to federal impact assessments, delivers a one-two punch to these financially struggling companies,” said Urquhart. “It may well knock them both out.”
It may well do that. Savage and Nixon can pretend “the system” worked and defended water security in a dry land.
But it was Albertans who rallied and did that alone, without their government.
Teaser photo credit: Abandoned Grassy Mountain Coal Mine near Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, Canada. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grassy_Mountain_Coal_Mine_near_Crowsnest_Pass,_Alberta,_Canada.JPG. Keith McClary.