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Opening Statements at the Grassy Mountain Hearing

November 8, 2020

The transcripts for the first four days of the JRP hearing totaled more than 900 pages, the product of approximately seven hours a day of presentations and questioning. Here, I’ll identify several noteworthy themes animating the opening remarks of Benga Mining, federal government departments, and intervening organizations and individuals (it’s noteworthy that no provincial department offered such remarks).

One of those themes is change – how much the Crowsnest Pass has changed since the last coal was mined there in 1983. Fred Bradley, the former MLA for the area who served as Alberta’s environment minister from 1982 to 1986, offered a snapshot detailing sharp reductions in the area’s population and economy. From 1979 to 2016, the population fell by 23.5 percent, to 5,589 people. Mine closures from the mid-1970s to 1983 put the Pass on this path; subsequent forest products and petroleum company closures confirmed it.

But, if Bradley was right to claim that plans for new mines 45 years ago enjoyed broad public support, the same can’t be said now. That’s another important change in the Crowsnest over the past 40 years. The end of coal there transformed the area, as Rick Cooke of the Crowsnest Conservation Society said, into “a residential destination and amenity lifestyle community.” Some of the more recent arrivals to the community, such as Barbara Janusz, see those amenities as turning the community into “a magnet for people from other parts of Alberta like never before.” Lifelong residents like Mike Judd made it clear they have always valued the amenities that have drawn recent migrants. None of the newcomers, in Judd’s view, “were drawn to live in the Pass because it would likely become a coal-mining community again.” There is much more questioning today than there was decades ago about whether coal mining should be central to the future of the Crowsnest Pass.

Water – that would be the concern I would pick if I had to select the most talked-about one in what I read in the first few hundred pages of transcripts. Here, many people and organizations are concerned the Crowsnest and Oldman watersheds will become the next Elk Valley watershed.

In the Elk Valley, selenium pollution from Teck’s coal operations is a serious environmental problem. A 2014 Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) study illustrated that selenium was very toxic for westslope cutthroat trout in the Elk and Fording Rivers. An independent evaluation of the ECCC study confirmed those findings. In 2019, Teck consultants reported a collapse in the westslope cutthroat trout population in the upper Fording River over just two years – the count of adult fish was 93% below the 2017 count. This collapse led Teck to replicate the study in 2020 to see if the 2019 results were due to flaws in the study. This pollution figured prominently in downstream users’ demands for a federal environmental assessment of Teck’s Castle Project – demands ECCC Minister Wilkinson agreed to in August 2020.

Selenium figures importantly in the grave concerns Trout Unlimited Canada has about the potential of the Grassy Mountain mine to have “acute negative effects …on water quality, fish habitat, and fish populations.”

Shannon Frank, the executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council, identified selenium as the most important issue for the Council’s stakeholders: “The Number 1 concern of our stakeholders is the potential for selenium contamination and another water-quality contamination.” About 200,000 people downstream of Crowsnest Pass rely on the water from this “critical headwaters area” (about 90 percent of the water in the Oldman River comes from these headwaters). And, without a Grassy Mountain coal mine – and Frank believes the decision on Grassy Mountain will be “precedent-setting” – nearly 100 percent of these headwaters (95 percent) already are designated as being of “low to moderate integrity.” Grassy Mountain is located in what is a primarily low integrity area.

But, since the federal government will have to approve this project, perhaps the most telling comments regarding selenium came in ECCC’s opening statement. Selenium pollution figured prominently in the opening remarks of Margaret Fairbairn, ECCC’s acting regional director. ECCC had decreased confidence in the ability of Benga’s proposed 15 micrograms of selenium per litre limit “to ensure protection to the aquatic ecosystem.” In Benga’s submission regarding selenium, ECCC could find “no basis upon which to validate any conclusions put forward by Benga regarding selenium speciation.” (my emphasis) This sounds very damning, not least since Benga’s said its conclusions on this subject were based on “anecdotal evidence.” Was the selenium limit Benga established in its application appropriate? ECCC didn’t think so. ECCC, by calling into question the scientific and technical basis for Benga’s conclusions about selenium pollution, should give the Joint Review Panel and government regulators pause when the time comes to approve or reject this project.

ECCC’s criticisms of Benga’s selenium modeling highlighted a more general criticism of the company’s impact assessment submission – that its quality was poor. Richard Secord, who with Ifeoma Okoye is representing AWA and the Grassy Mountain Group of landowners,  described Benga’s proposal as “one of the most user-unfriendly applications ever filed.” Since making its initial application in August 2016, Benga has offered 12 addenda to its application as it has tried to address the many questions the company has faced about its credibility. Gavin Fitch, representing the Livingstone Landowners Group, might have been incredulous when he noted Benga’s claim that high wind speeds hadn’t been recorded on Grassy Mountain. Perhaps, he suggested, Benga’s consultants didn’t discover high winds because they only collected data over a few months and didn’t measure wind speeds at time when high wind speeds occur. Or, Michael Niven, representing the Municipal District of Ranchlands, characterized Benga’s application as “disorganized, deficient, and applying a make-it-up-as-they-go approach.” Most of the participants likely would have agreed with Secord’s assessment: “Remarkably, after five-and-a-half years, many questions and concerns about the Benga project remain, including Benga’s modelling and assumption. These are reasons enough to deny this application.”

My next instalment will focus on what should be Benga’s strongest suit in this hearing – the section of the proceedings devoted in part to the purpose of the project and its socio-economic impacts.

Ian  Urquhart, Conservation Director

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