Today, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson took an important step in addressing the impact of coal in Canada by announcing his intention to designate all metallurgical coal mine development projects in southwest Alberta for a federal impact assessment. The goal is to evaluate how they affect areas of federal jurisdiction, especially the effects of selenium pollution on fish and fish habitat. The minister, however, declined a critical request for a regional assessment of the impacts of metallurgical coal mining on the practise of Aboriginal and Treaty rights, which directly impacts First Nations in the area.
The request for a regional assessment was initiated by Latasha Calf Robe, of Niitsitapi Water Protectors, and supported by Blood Tribe/Kainai and Siksika First Nations and environmental groups in the region, concerned about the serious impact of the scale and pace of coal mining activities on the practise of their constitutionally protected Aboriginal and Treaty rights. By declining to order a regional assessment, the minister’s announcement failed to address these concerns.
A regional assessment would have analyzed the collective contribution of the Alberta mines to climate change, which will not be captured in individual project-by-project impact assessments. The federal denial of this regional assessment indicates that the government is not considering the cumulative impacts from mining, transporting, and burning metallurgic coal in Canada’s commitment to “power past coal” and curb climate change.
Ecojustice and its clients are also worried about the minister’s statements regarding dilution of selenium pollution and effluent regulations. Selenium is a bioaccumulant, which means that dilution will not be the solution to this pollution, and while treatment technologies exist, none have been proven to meet strict standards in the long term. In addition to that, the Coal Mining Effluent Regulations have been delayed for years, repeatedly watered down due to aggressive lobbying from the coal industry.
The groups, however, welcome the minister’s announcement of his intention to designate all metallurgical coal mines for a federal impact assessment as an important first step to curb the damages caused by the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel. It means that the minister has heard the loud and vocal concerns of Albertans, and recognizes the need for a thorough, transparent, and public environmental analysis of the effects of the metallurgical coal mines, which can only be achieved with a federal impact assessment. Ecojustice and its clients encourage the minister to amend the project list regulations under the Impact Assessment Act to formally designate all thermal and metallurgic coal to require a federal impact assessment.
The first test of the new policy will be Montem Resources’ proposed Tent Mountain metallurgical coal mine, which the Minister must decide to designate for a federal impact assessment by the end of the month. Numerous Alberta, British Columbia, and U.S.-based governments and organizations have asked the minister to designate this mine proposal, which spans the Alberta-B.C. border, including Blood Tribe/Kainai and Siksika First Nations; Niitsitapi Water Protectors, CPAWS Southern Alberta, and Livingstone Landowners’ Group (all represented by Ecojustice); Alberta Wilderness Association, Wildsight, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Many of these groups have identified selenium pollution as a serious problem across the region and are also concerned about transboundary impacts, climate, at-risk species and Treaty and Aboriginal rights.
Representatives from the groups released the following statements:
Latasha Calf Robe, from Niitsitapi Water Protectors
“We hope that future federal impact assessments of proposed metallurgical coal mine projects will centre the concerns of First Nations and Indigenous peoples about the cumulative impacts of metallurgical coal in a more comprehensive and meaningful way than has been done previously.”
“The cumulative impacts that coal exploration and development, human activity, agriculture and climate change is having in the Rocky Mountains and Eastern Slopes is restricting First Nations’ ability to hunt, trap & gather within their traditional lands. We are disappointed in Minister Wilkinson’s failure to address specific concerns related to Treaty and Aboriginal rights.”
David Khan, lawyer at Ecojustice:
“The environmental impacts of thermal and metallurgical coal mines are identical on the ground, and they have similar downstream climate impacts. It is curious that the minister deemed these impacts unacceptable in considering thermal coal mine developments last week, yet does not appear to make the same assertion for metallurgical coal mines, despite these significant impacts.”
Becky Best-Bertwistle, conservation engagement coordinator at CPAWS Southern Alberta:
“Relying on a project-by-project assessment regime allows cumulative impacts on Treaty and Aboriginal rights, climate and species at risk to fall through the cracks. While it is positive that all new coal mine applications with the potential to release selenium will undergo a federal assessment, the minister’s announcement today did nothing to remedy these gaps.”
Ecojustice uses the power of the law to defend nature, combat climate change, and fight for a healthy environment. Its strategic, public interest lawsuits and advocacy lead to precedent-setting court decisions and law and policy that deliver lasting solutions to Canada’s most urgent environmental problems. As Canada’s largest environmental law charity, Ecojustice operates offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax.