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Adequacy?: Whitebark Pine in Benga’s Environmental Impact Assessment

November 23, 2020

“Adequacy” is a recurring theme in the Grassy Mountain Coal Project Joint Review Panel hearing. Adequacy refers to the substance of Benga Mining Ltd.’s impact assessment. It refers to whether the company has done a good job in detailing the wide range of impacts its project will have; it refers to the company’s details about how it will address those impacts.

Adequacy featured importantly in the lead up to today’s hearing. The four-year road stretching from Benga’s initial application to today’s hearing is marked by 12 addenda to that original document. The Joint Review Panel required Benga to submit thousands of pages of additional information before it judged the company’s application adequate enough to proceed to a hearing. Now, the adequacy of Benga’s impact assessment is being repeatedly called into question by the experts who have submitted evidence on behalf of AWA and the other interveners opposing Benga’s coal project.

Foresight is an important constitute of adequacy in an environmental assessment. It refers to the ability to predict the future. Generally, Benga is very confident in its predictive abilities. On an issue like coking coal prices Benga’s witnesses exhibited great confidence. They were very certain their coal price assumptions were reasonable. This confidence also animates their statements about conservation and reclamation. The company repeatedly asserted that it will deliver a promised land where a reclaimed, post-mining Grassy Mountain will “support values associated with timber grazing, wildlife habitat, fish, recreation, and clean water resources; returning the aesthetic qualities of the landscape; providing for traditional land use; and returning forest productivity to equivalent pre-development levels.” (Gary Houston, VP of External Relations, outlined Benga’s end land-use goal on page 2574 of the hearing transcript for November 12th.)

In my opinion, Benga’s conservation and reclamation evidence instead was shrouded in a fog of uncertainty. Houston foreshadowed this three lines into his evidence on this topic when he said he and his witnesses would present a “conceptual conservation and reclamation plan” to the Panel. (my emphasis) As he later said during cross-examination: “I think we need to go back to the – the idea that this is a conceptual plan, and the details will be – will be developed.” Conceptual plans come from an abstract world of ideas. They are mental concepts or conceptions and their opposites are plans that are real, concrete, or tangible. From Benga’s perspective such tangible plans with real details aren’t needed at this point in time. It’s enough for the company to give the Panel an end land-use goal and then say it will develop the details at some later dated. “Adaptive management” is what the company proposes will deliver the goods.

The rest of this post questions the adequacy of Benga’s impact assessment and its powers of foresight in the context of the destruction and restoration  of whitebark pine – one of the species-at-risk threatened by this project. Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Proposed Recovery Strategy for whitebark pine begins by noting this species “is essential to ecosystem functioning in many subalpine and treeline forests.” It faces four threats throughout its range: white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle, fire and fire suppression, and climate change. A whitebark pine generally doesn’t produce cones until 30 to 50 years into its life and it won’t produce a sizeable number of cones until it’s 60 to 80 years of age. The U.S. Forest Service reports that peak cone production will extend for another 250 years and then gradually decline. Some pines that are 1,000 years still reproduce. For me, it’s humbling to realize that many whitebark and limber pines alive today in the high country of the Crowsnest stood witness long ago to the Blackfoot Confederacy buffalo hunters and Palliser expedition explorers.


Benga’s Mining Plans and Whitebark Pine

Benga estimates it will destroy approximately 21,000 whitebark and limber pine in order to mine Grassy’s coal. After removing these trees from the landscape, it will plant 63,000 whitebark pine seedlings – three times the population it will destroy. For their part at the hearing, Environment and Climate Change Canada officials requested, if the project is approved, that Benga should be held to the ratio of three seedlings planted for every tree destroyed. In Banff National Park, Lake Louise Ski Area was fined $2.1 million for destroying at least 39 whitebark pine; on Grassy Mountain, Benga proposes that tree planting is sufficient compensation for the destruction its mine will do to this high county species (whitebark pine lack legal protection from provincial governments on provincial Crown lands).

The company proposes to start its general reclamation activities in the second year of the mine’s operation. By year 15 it proposes that approximately one-third of the mine’s total footprint will be reclaimed. This is the year when Benga proposes to plant its first replacement seedlings on its mining site.

Ifeoma Okoye’s cross-examination of Benga included probing questions about how the company collected data on the distribution of whitebark pine within the project’s footprint. The consultant’s desktop analysis was complemented by several field surveys and one helicopter survey – the surveys were done over several weeks in 2016. During the hearing, one of Benga’s vegetation consultants confirmed for the Joint Review Panel Secretariat’s counsel that Benga’s maps purported to show where whitebark pine occurred within the project’s footprint. She also said that when she was on the site in 2019 the whitebark pines within the mine’s footprint were generally unhealthy: “I would say the majority were stressed in – they were either dying or dead, or there was obvious symptoms of some sort of stress in the tree.”


Questioning Benga’s Account of the Health of and Impacts on Whitebark Pine

Cliff Wallis, our Coalition’s expert witness on the likely terrestrial impacts of the project, raised important questions about the adequacy of the whitebark pine mapping that Benga prepared and the health of the local population. In August 2020 Wallis surveyed the company’s proposed rock disposal area for whitebark pine. This area was identified as potential critical habitat for this species in the federal government’s proposed recovery strategy for whitebark pine. Along his 1173 metre transect he discovered that 87 of the 107 whitebark pines encountered were within the rock disposal area. His evidence was that Benga didn’t accurately map the occurrence of this species in its mining area. Endangered whitebark pine “is present in significant quantities and will be directly harmed by the project. The failure to identify the full extent of whitebark pine raises issues related to the adequacy of the work and the environmental assessment.”

Wallis also told the Panel that Benga’s 2016 consultant’s report and his observations from his August 2020 site visit are at odds with the testimony offered by Benga’s vegetation expert about the health of the whitebark pine population that the company will destroy. “Most of the whitebark pine that I looked at were healthy,” he said. “I did observe a very small number of blister rust-infected trees in the more closed forest, but trees on the steeper, more open slopes were apparently still healthy, much as Benga’s consultants reported.”


Questioning the Questioners

If any budding expert witnesses read this post, they should make a note of some tactics opposing counsel might use to try to call the credibility of your evidence into question. In this case, Benga’s counsel may have wanted to put the idea into the heads of Panel members and staff that Wallis’s evidence might not have expressed an objective, professional opinion. Counsel asked if his submission constituted his professional opinion, his personal opinion, or instead “the opinion of the board of directors for the Alberta Wilderness Association.” (Wallis’s position on AWA’s board of directors is listed clearly on the curriculum vitae he gave the Panel.)

You also can expect opposing counsel to raise your objectivity as an issue by suggesting you quote selectively from documents. Benga’s counsel cited the following sentence from the consultant report on vegetation: “The whitebark pine and limber pine identified with the LSA appeared relatively healthy (note: some trees adjacent to confirmed individuals had branches with no needles, and some trees had died).” (my emphasis) Counsel asked if Wallis was being objective when he included just the underlined portion of this sentence in his submission. Note though that Benga’s counsel was selective in his treatment of the paragraph Wallis took that statement from. Counsel didn’t ask why Wallis hadn’t included another sentence from the same paragraph – one affirming the consultant’s/Wallis’s overall conclusion that the population “appeared relatively healthy.” That additional statement read: “For mature cone-bearing trees, however, occurrences were positively identified and independently confirmed.”


The Economics of Coal Mining Trumps All Else

Given Houston’s statements at the hearing, it’s pretty clear that even a more adequate accounting of the whitebark pine population wouldn’t have changed Benga’s mining plan at all. Whether it was during cross-examination by Gavin Fitch or the JRP counsel, Houston made it very clear that the mining plan and its identification of where coal should be mined trumped other all other considerations. “[W]hen it comes to the evaluation of the pit and the pit location,” he said, “we’re very constrained by where the coal is and what coal can economically be extracted. It’s – it’s not practical to leave an island in the middle of the pit, and I don’t mean to be, you know, facetious or – or anything here, but that – that’s not an option.”


What About Reclamation?

If you ignore the fact it will take approximately 100 years until there are mature cone-bearing whitebark pine on Grassy Mountain, Benga’s conceptual reclamation plan promises a bright future for this species at risk. A century from now Benga expects its project will have delivered more whitebark pine and healthier whitebark pine than there are on the mountain today. It’s unclear what animates those expectations…optimism? naivete? hubris?

One thing that is clear is, to the extent there are details in Benga’s reclamation plan (other than that they will plant 63,000 seedlings), there seems to be plenty of room to question if those plans are based on extensive knowledge of whitebark pine. During Ifeoma Okoye’s cross-examination, Benga’s witnesses couldn’t credit any of the mines it presented as examples of “good coal mine reclamation” with restoring whitebark or limber pine (or rough fescue grasslands for that matter). What actual coal mine reclamations in Alberta offer insights into what reclamation of this species at risk requires? None.

At other points Benga’s statements weren’t consistent with what I would expect from a company that wants to be entrusted with reviving a population after first eliminating it. For example, when Benga reclaims Grassy Mountain it will eliminate steep slopes on the site. Nature’s steep slopes are inconvenient. They are, Houston noted, hard to manage. It’s difficult to keep soil on them; consequently, they are not well-suited to revegetation efforts. And Benga believes this could be a good thing. “In many ways,” he said, “shallower slopes can be more productive than very steep slopes.”

This isn’t the case for whitebark pine. As Cliff Wallis pointed out, by eliminating 86 percent of the slopes greater than 30 percent in the mine area, Benga’s site reclamation will eliminate the terrain where whitebark pine successfully outcompetes other species that are more at home on gentler terrain. While the dense whitebark pine area on the mine site is found for the most part on terrain with a slope greater than 30 percent, most of the area where whitebark pine will be replanted has a slope of less than five percent.

Such concerns about reclamation aren’t soothed when Benga offered the following answer to a question about whether it could give any specifics on how the biodiversity plan would be developed as part of the conservation and reclamation plan: “No.” To be fair, Benga’s answer went on to say that the “reclamation and conservation strategy is going to grow, but it’s going to grow in parallel to the detailed design of the site, and it’s going to grow over time as we progress through the various stages of the reclamation project…” I don’t feel any more at ease knowing that there’s definitely something, a strategy, that is going to grow on this site over time.

Statements from Benga like the one above underline just how conceptual the company’s plan for reclamation is. If you think that, at this point in time, Benga should be offering considerable detail to the Panel about its reclamation aspirations you should skeptically read these words from Benga: “we’ve adopted the best of the best for – for – for the reclamation enclosure plan for – for Grassy.”

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