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The case for coal: the proposed open pit mine in Crowsnest Pass

Amid the phase-out of coal-fired power in Alberta, Crowsnest Pass confronts the possibilty of a new mine – and the existential dilemma that comes with it

Sep 6, 2016

by Jeff Doherty

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Cal Clark, manager of sustainable development, Riversdale resources
Photograph Bluefish Studio

Coal – a mineral and way of life that’s usually talked about in the past tense – remains closer to the present than many people realize.

“The Crowsnest Pass is a good example – a litmus test – of cumulative effects. How many impacts can a landscape absorb before it loses ecological capacity?” – Lorne Fitch, University of Calgary

“We wouldn’t have had the Crowsnest Pass on our radar had we known that coal mining was a possibility,” says John Redekopp, an outdoorsy realtor who relocated from Calgary to the mountain community in southwestern Alberta in 2013. The Pass (population: 5,565) is an amalgamation of five former ­mining towns – Coleman, Blairmore, Frank, Bellevue and Hillcrest – surrounded by several hundred square kilometres of Rocky Mountain playground. Although the local economy is lagging, the vistas rival those of other mountain towns, the trout fishing is fantastic and property values are reasonable. After visiting the region for many years, Redekopp and his spouse purchased a home in Valley Ridge Country Estates, an acreage development overlooking Turtle Mountain. He figured the Crowsnest Pass was poised to be the next Fernie.

Then he heard about the proposed open pit coal mine.

Although more than three decades have passed since coal was last mined in the Crowsnest Pass, the much-maligned mineral may have a future in the region. This is because Riversdale Resources, a private, Australia-based junior mining company owned by > Benga Mining, proposes to build a 2,800-hectare open pit coal mine seven kilometres north of Blairmore on Grassy Mountain. Western Canadian Collieries, a company commonly featured in local historical exhibits, removed about eight million tonnes of coal from the mountain between 1913 and 1958, leaving behind roads, terraces and slag piles on both private and Crown-owned land. Picking up they left off, Riversdale plans to mine up to four million tonnes of coal annually for 25 years.

Until Riversdale came to town, coal mining has largely remained a thing of the past, something tourists read about while visiting crumbling mining structures that are now historical sites. The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, a provincial museum overlooking its namesake rockslide, chronicles local mining disasters and the region’s history of labour organization. At the Bellevue Underground Mine, summer visitors can escape the heat and experience complete darkness in a decommissioned mineshaft complete with dioramas of working miners. The estimated 200 locals who continue to make their living from actual coal mining are employed by Teck Resources in B.C.’s Elk Valley.

Not everyone is welcoming the return of coal. Like Redekopp, they see the Pass as a lifestyle community transitioning away from non-renewable resource development. Although the region has depopulated slightly in recent years, they say tourism is at a tipping point and may soon become a viable pillar of the local economy. As evidence of this, they point out that the provincial government recently gave wildland and provincial park status to a large swath of land south of the community. The shift to a different future is also marked by new cafés, alternative health clinics and fly fishing shops. If the mining activity results in selenium contamination of Gold Creek or Blairmore Creek, the result could spell trouble for both the threatened westslope cutthroat trout and the emerging tourism industry.

Those who support the mine, on the other hand, are excited about the 700 person-years of construction labour and the 400 full-time ­operating positions that Riversdale is promising. And jobs are needed in the area. Individual incomes in the Crowsnest Pass are nearly $8,000 lower than the provincial average. With the employment outlook bleak, young people are leaving the community. Tellingly, the median age of residents is 50 whereas the median age in the province overall is only 37. In this context, Riversdale perhaps brings hope to a community that has been short on hope for more than a generation.
The Grassy Mountain project is being reviewed by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). The consultations and open houses are forcing the community to imagine a heavy industrial future when, for several decades, the emphasis has been upon recreation and tourism. The company’s presence cannot be ignored. It has bought land and mineral rights, completed geotechnical analyses and has a storefront on Blairmore’s main street. Young men and women, clad in high-visibility coveralls, come and go through the front door. Company employees are already settling into the valley, shopping for homes and volunteering on local committees. While many unknowns remain, one thing is certain: Riversdale is serious about the Grassy Mountain project.

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Crowsnest Pass has ambitions to become both a tourism and resource hub
Photograph Bluefish Studio

Coal has long suffered a poor reputation, but lately it has been outright vilified. To prepare for a carbon-constrained future, the provincial government has announced an accelerated plan to phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2030. At the same time, communities that rely on coal have recently been left in dire straits. The closure last year of Grande Cache Coal, due to low commodity prices, has so eroded the economy and tax base in that town that local officials there have asked the minister of Municipal Affairs to consider dissolving it into the Municipal District of Greenview. Wabamun, once a coal mining powerhouse that generated half of Alberta’s electricity needs, is building an economy based on water sports and recreation. At first glance, this would appear to be the wrong time and the wrong province for a coal mining project. So why now? And why in the Crowsnest Pass?

Speaking from the company’s Blairmore office, Riversdale’s managing director, Steve Mallyon, explains that his team isn’t interested in thermal coal (the stuff that’s burned at Alberta’s electricity generating stations, such as Sheerness and Battle River). The company’s focus, instead, is on high-energy coking coal. This higher-quality coal, also called metallurgical coal, is required to manufacture steel. With markets in Europe, Asia and Brazil, Mallyon says the metallurgical coal found at Grassy Mountain is similar in grade to the highly coveted product that is mined by Teck Resources in the Elk Valley. The Grassy Mountain site, Mallyon says, represents the 14th-largest hard coking coal resource globally. “There’s not much of it in the world,” he says, adding that global buyers are already impressed with the quality of initial samples.

With the slow growth in global coal markets, onlookers may be skeptical about Riversdale’s timing, but Mallyon says now is the right time for several reasons. “We tend to build our projects when others aren’t,” he says, referring to the junior company’s strategy of expanding during a downturn to ensure its projects are developed on time and on budget. Also important, he adds, is the planned conclusion, late in 2017, of Teck Resources’ Coal ­Mountain mine in southeastern B.C. (south of nearby Sparwood), a facility that annually produces 2.7 million tonnes of high-quality metallurgical coal. Mallyon says coal from the Crowsnest Pass will nicely fill the resulting shortfall both at the Port of Vancouver and in world markets. Finally, he’s optimistic that coal prices, which have been low since the 2008 global recession, are bound to increase in coming years. Time may prove him right on that account. Industry watchers are already giving indications of tightening supply for certain high-quality grades of coal.

With experience in Australia, South Africa and Mozambique, Riversdale knows mining can be challenging and expensive. The appeal of the Grassy Mountain project, Mallyon says, is that much of the infrastructure is already in place. Most significant is the railway connection to Vancouver and global steel markets. Also attractive is a local workforce that has mining skills and has worked in the Elk Valley. “We’ve never seen a better setup,” he says.

The regulatory process may prove to be less attractive. ­Riversdale is revising its environmental impact assessment in response to 28 shortcomings identified by the AER early in 2016. Among other things, the regulator asked for clarification on the assessment’s methodology, better modelling of surface and ground water ­impacts and data showing the health of the ­westslope cutthroat trout ­population. In an update provided to municipal councillors in late May, Riversdale’s Cal Clark, manager of sustainable ­development, indicated that he hopes to have enough information to resubmit an amended assessment during the summer of 2016.

If all goes according to plan, Clark estimates that first coal could ship as early as 2019. Given the recent regulatory snags, he may need to revise that estimate. Still, that a mining company can proceed so quickly shows that coal is still a contemporary concern. The question now confronting the community: Can the benefits of a heavy industrial future be realized without compromising the emerging tourism industry or the regional environment?

Brian Gallant is a former municipal councillor and current president of the Crowsnest Pass ­Chamber of Commerce. As owner of Bellevue-based Sinister Sports, he organizes the Sinister 7 Ultra, a gruelling 100-mile adventure race that traverses the surrounding mountains, beginning in Blairmore and ending in Coleman. He says coal mining and tourism both have a future in the Pass. “We strongly believe that the community needs to have economic diversity, that different businesses need to exist together,” he says, speaking on behalf of the Chamber.

The Crowsnest Pass’s mayor and councillors are loosely ­supportive of the Grassy Mountain project. Although they have concerns about some of the details, they welcome the ­economic and social benefits that mining might bring, and they’ve ­indicated to local media that they trust the regulatory process will ensure protection of their community’s water and air.

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“We strongly believe that the community needs to have economic diversity, that different businesses need to exist together.” – Brian Gallant, Crowsnest Pass Chamber of Commerce
Photograph Bluefish Studio

Even if they were outright opposed, the mayor and councillors wouldn’t be able to directly prevent mining on Grassy ­Mountain. In Alberta, decisions of the AER take precedence over ­municipal land use bylaws and statutory planning documents. As such, ­local officials must rely on influence and persuasion when it comes to natural resource developments. The situation is further complicated, in this case, because Grassy Mountain is located just inside the boundaries of the Municipal District of ­Ranchland, a rural municipality north of the Crowsnest Pass. Only the loadout facility and railway connection will be located within the municipal boundaries of the Crowsnest Pass.

Even though the Municipal District of Ranchland stands to benefit from nearly a million dollars in municipal taxes a year (by Riversdale’s estimate), the reeve and councillors there are firmly opposed to the Grassy Mountain project. In a statement to the AER, they say their land use bylaw prioritizes the preservation of ­agricultural land and agricultural activities over industrial ­development. In addition to concerns about invasive weeds, road damage and reclamation, the rural officials are concerned that a loss of aquatic habitat will make the region less attractive to visitors. “A decline in the already-threatened population of western cutthroat trout,” their statement reads, “will reduce tourism and contribute to declining revenue in the short- and long-term.”

This last point brings to the fore a concern expressed by many people in the Crowsnest Pass – that is, that heavy industrial ­development fundamentally conflicts with development of the tourism industry. “A coal mine here is in the wrong neighbourhood, at the wrong time, driven by the wrong values,” writes an adjacent landowner in his comments to the federal regulator, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA).

At least some members of the Crowsnest Pass Economic Development Committee have expressed similar sentiments, saying they don’t want the Pass to be known as a coal mining community. Even though the Grassy Mountain project has been in the works for several years, the committee has continued to focus almost entirely on tourism and outdoor recreation. A ­review of their meeting minutes from a recent two-year period shows an agenda filled with discussions about, among other things, outdoor trade shows, advertising in off-highway vehicle magazines, improvements to campground facilities and general beautification.

The opposition to the mine has some characterizing their neighbours as closed-minded. “It seems like an outspoken minority of residents in this area are opposed to change of any kind,” writes a resident of Coleman in her comments to the CEAA, “and this attitude damages the future viability of the Crowsnest Pass.” The reality, of course, is more nuanced. While one or two residents may truly be opposed to any change, the bulk of the comments to the CEAA show that opposed residents have genuine concerns (and fears) about noise, dust, groundwater contamination and declining property values.

In fact, for many residents, the issue isn’t so much the mine pit itself (which is largely out of sight), but rather the railway loadout facility, a seven-storey conveyor and elevator-like structure that, together with a railway turnaround loop, will wipe out half of an 18-hole golf course in its proposed location directly adjacent to Blairmore. The displaced fairways can be rebuilt with a land swap, but many residents, including the mayor and several councillors, are concerned the industrial facility will visually detract from the community.

In her comments to the CEAA, one long-time resident hopes Riversdale will compromise with a revised proposal. “By relocating the coal loadout and rail loop higher up Grassy Mountain, away from the community and Highway 3, it would greatly reduce some of the environmental impact to our community,” she writes. “We need to have industry … to improve our economic situation, but we do not want to endure 28 years of environmental degradation to our community as a cost of economic gain.”

Some residents have lived in the Crowsnest valley long enough to remember when coal stockpiling and loading coated every surface in a fine layer of dust. To mitigate concerns about dust (and noise), Riversdale promises a modern, fully enclosed loadout facility that uses water and negative air pressure as coal is conveyed and loaded. While Clark acknowledges that all development involves trade-offs, he says the loadout facility may prove to be a boon because it will provide nearly $500,000 of municipal taxes per year, an amount he estimates is equal to the property taxes paid by nine hotels. In this way, he suggests, the mine can complement and enhance the existing business structure. “It’s not an either/or situation,” he says, “Industry gives a stable platform for people to stay in the community and develop tourism.”

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The region has had a history of coal mining
Photograph Bluefish Studio

The continued development of the tourism industry will depend, of course, on a landscape and environment that is intact, biologically diverse and visually attractive. Whether the Grassy Mountain project can proceed without significantly impacting the integrity of the local and regional environment is an open question. Not surprisingly, the representatives from Riversdale say they can find a balance that allows them to realize the benefits of resource extraction without unduly compromising the environment.

In fact, the mining activity may even bring environmental benefit. This is because Grassy Mountain is hardly the picture of pristine wilderness. Western Canadian Collieries left slag piles and unwanted mining equipment behind. Aside from a brief period of exploration activity during the early 1970s, the site has since been of interest primarily to off-highway vehicle enthusiasts who motor around on the old mining tracks and terraces. Erosion and sediment discharge are ongoing problems. The upshot: Grassy Mountain is, today, an abandoned industrial development badly in need of reclamation.

Riversdale promises to reclaim and rehabilitate the site on an ongoing basis, and says this will include some of the historical disturbance left over from Western Canadian Collieries. “Grassy Mountain is un-reclaimed,” says Clark. “There’ll be progressive reclamation that includes not just our mining activity but also the historical mining activity.”

The idea that more open pit mining is necessary to reclaim Grassy Mountain is a notion that doesn’t sit well with well Katie Morrison. As the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s conservation director, she tends to take a step back when looking a land use issues. “There should be resources going directly to reclamation,” she says. Before we make decisions about more mining, she says, we need to ask ourselves the following question: “What is the real value of this landscape?”

Lorne Fitch agrees. He’s a fisheries biologist, an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary and a provincial riparian specialist with the Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society. Mining brings specific concerns, he explains, such as habitat loss and selenium ­contamination, but the bigger issue is that active mining will only add to existing ­environmental problems. “The Crowsnest Pass is a good example – a litmus test – of cumulative effects,” he says. “How many impacts can a landscape absorb before it loses ecological capacity?” When mining is considered alongside transmission line development, off-highway vehicle use, urban expansion, dispersed camping and general overuse of the landscape, the picture becomes clear that the region is suffering from a death by a thousand cuts.

The cumulative effects Fitch describes are real and measurable. Already, he says, the threatened westslope cutthroat trout cover only five per cent of their historic range in the Bow River and Oldman River watersheds. Their range could be further reduced if runoff from the Grassy Mountain mine results in harmful selenium levels in Gold Creek or Blairmore Creek. The risk is real, Fitch says, because the coal at Grassy Mountain is similar in chemical composition to the coal in the Elk Valley, where Teck Resources has long been dogged by problems related to selenium contamination. As a warning, Fitch says bull trout, Alberta’s official fish, were eliminated from the Upper Crowsnest River in a matter of decades as a result of recreational and industrial pressures.

For its part, Riversdale is forthright in acknowledging that mining will have consequences, both for the environment and for adjacent landowners. The challenge, Mallyon says, is to mitigate those concerns and encourage needed economic development at the same time. In this sense, Riversdale’s mine proposal is similar to a cellphone tower or a slaughterhouse: those nearest will oppose the land use while it will be expected, even demanded, by those who are distant. Just as people expect mobile data and affordable cuts of meat, they also expect manufactured goods, such as new vehicles, that are made from steel. Clark reminds us that we’re also increasing our capacity to produce alternative energy, including more wind-powered electricity generation. This, he says, means the world will require more steel, and, therefore, more of the high quality metallurgical coal that can be mined from Grassy Mountain. It’s a provocative line of reasoning and one that isn’t easily dismissed, especially not by those who claim to take a holistic view to solving the world’s environmental problems.

Until the environmental assesment is complete complete, and Riversdale is given the go-ahead, the Grassy Mountain project will remain an idea – a powerful one – that brings both hope and concern to the region. Few people would deceive themselves into thinking that the mine can be developed without any negative effects. The people of the Crowsnest Pass know better than most that mining brings risks. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that it’s unrealistic to think tourism will be only positive. Popularity can bring new people and new investment, to be sure, but as the residents of Fernie and Canmore know, the weekender effect can also bring a different set of social and environmental problems that are no less difficult to manage.

In the meantime, the debate continues. While the conflict brings discomfort to everyone involved, the conversations are forcing the people of the Crowsnest Pass to imagine (and re-imagine) their future as a community. It’s true that various councils and economic development committees have made efforts to that end over the decades, with various visioning statements and development plans, but nothing has caught the imagination of the people. “It’s safe to say that the Crowsnest Pass suffers from an identity crisis,” says Gallant, the former councillor and current president of the Chamber. “The community was built on mining, but depending on who you talk to, you get a different version of where the community should be going.”

The commonality is a fierce love of home and place. Indeed, it’s difficult not to empathize with those who are hoping a job at the mine will allow them to stay in their home community, buy a house, raise children and care for aging parents. Yet equally deserving of empathy are those who were expecting a different future. Like Redekopp, the outdoorsy realtor who moved to the Crowsnest Pass for lifestyle reasons, they see the Grassy Mountain mine as a spectre that scuttles their dreams. “The Crowsnest Pass was going along the lines of Fernie,” he says. “Now that has been compromised.”

Others, perhaps the majority, haven’t given much thought to the implications of the Grassy Mountain project. Over at the Bellevue Inn, early on a Friday evening, men in dated jeans and camouflage baseball caps are beginning to fill seats in the historic tavern. Sam Burnett explains that he’s a power lineman who works throughout Canada on transmission line projects. He could live anywhere, he says, but he chooses to live in the Crowsnest Pass because he loves the mountains. He’s heard about Riversdale’s proposal and he confirms that people are definitely talking. “It’s like any debate,” he says, somewhat cynically. “Half of the people support it; the other half don’t.”

Although he’s unsure of where he sits on the issue, he doesn’t hesitate when asked if he would work at the Grassy Mountain mine: “I would if they needed a lineman,” he says, adding that they most likely will need one to maintain their high-voltage equipment.

Sam: meet Riversdale. Riversdale: meet Sam.

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