The Alberta company behind the $50-million Cheviot coal mine near Jasper National Park has nearly completed a new coal-haul road to the mine site – without having federal approval for any part of the mining operation, environmental groups say.
But Elk Valley Coal Corp. of Calgary says it has provincial approval for the road and the mine’s initial open pits, and expects to receive the necessary federal approval to begin mining 1.4 million tonnes of coal annually by the end of this year.
“We’re carrying on,” said Dermot Lane, the company’s director of public and environmental affairs. “We’re committed to this project and we’re going to make it happen.”
A coalition of Alberta and national environmental groups has asked the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review of the 7,455-hectare open-pit Cheviot mine, which would have an estimated 20-year life.
The five groups contend that major changes to the project – which received regulatory approvals after public hearings in 1997 and 2000 – compel Ottawa to do a new environmental study.
“The project is so substantially different . . . that an updated environmental assessment is necessary and is actually required by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act,” said Justin Duncan, a lawyer with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, representing the environmental groups.
The initial mine plan in 1996 called for a new coal-processing plant and associated jobs at the Cheviot mine site, with the coal being hauled by rail line through the McLeod River valley for shipment to the West Coast.
But Elk Valley Coal now plans to use huge trucks to haul the ‘raw’ coal 22 kilometres from the Cheviot mine site, through the valley and alongside a public road, to an aging coal-processing plant at the Luscar mine site near Hinton.
“The coal mine development they’re planning now is the very development the company ruled out early on in their planning process because of the environmental and social impacts,” said Dianne Pachal, an Alberta director with the Sierra Club of Canada.
But Lane argued that keeping the Luscar processing plant open, along with a minimum 120 jobs (200 if the plant goes to full production capacity), now makes economic sense.
It means the company can expand coal production by continuing to use the Luscar plant and its experienced workforce, which otherwise would have been laid off by the impending closure of the exhausted Cardinal River coal mine, he said.
In addition, the Cheviot mine already has regulatory approval, after undergoing “probably the most extensive environmental impact assessment and review process that any natural resource project has ever undertaken, certainly in Western Canada and perhaps across Canada,” Lane said.
But Glen Semenchuk of the Canadian Nature Federation said the double-lane, high-speed haul road through the McLeod River valley “would be an impassable barrier for wildlife and would also impact fish and migratory bird habitat.”
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has a legal duty to examine all of the changes to the project and ensure that the environment and wildlife are protected, Semenchuk said.
However, the department hasn’t responded in nearly two years to letters from the environmental groups requesting another environmental assessment.
The groups want the proposed mine area to be turned into a wildland provincial park.
The request for a judicial review isn’t likely to be heard in federal court until early next year.
Lane said the only remaining approval that Elk Valley Coal requires before starting the mining operation is an authorization from Fisheries and Oceans, which the company expects to get soon.
“We have not been given any indication that we have any major outstanding issues at this time,” he said.
But the Sierra Club’s Pachal said the company will require more than a single Fisheries and Oceans authorization, because a Federal Court ruling in 1999 struck down all the approvals from various federal agencies for the Cheviot project.
“There have been no new ones issued,” she said Under that 1999 ruling, Elk Valley Coal would violate an international treaty between Canada and the U.S. protecting migratory birds if the company dumps the excavated rock on the landscape at the Cheviot site, Pachal said.
Another hurdle for the project is Jasper naturalist and ecotourism tour guide Ben Gadd’s appeal of the provincial approval of the coal-haul road. His hearing, before Alberta’s Environmental Appeal Board, is scheduled for September 27-28 in Hinton.
Elk Valley Coal is also facing a new challenge from some property owners in Cadomin, a former mining town and now a hamlet of about 60 permanent and 100 seasonal residents in the McLeod River valley.
Barbara Higgins, a 74-year-old seasonal resident of Cadomin who grew up in the mining town where her father was an underground coal miner, is submitting an appeal to Alberta Environment on behalf of herself and four other property owners.
“I would like to see the mine stopped,” said Higgins, adding she’s worried about the impact on the tributaries of the McLeod River. “They’re going to dig up a whole area and have a moonscape there instead of a beautiful place where ordinary Albertans can go.”
Pachal pointed out that work on the coal-haul road has already resulted in construction debris ending up in one of the river’s tributaries, Prospect Creek, which is habitat for fisheries and the harlequin duck, a species at risk.
But Lane said that Elk Valley Coal has an agreement with the Cadomin Environmental Protection Association, a group that represents most of the hamlet’s permanent residents, and has also won support for the Cheviot project from the local county and the Town of Hinton.
“This is an enormous benefit to the region, which has seen the closure of the Obed (coal) mine and the impending closure of the Cardinal River mine. It’s actually good news for that region,” Lane said.
(Mark Lowey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)