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Opponent to the proposed Grassy Mountain Pipeline Project says there is too much at stake with minimum benefits

Posted on 20 January 2021 by Ryan Dahlman

The Grassy Mountain Coal Project has been getting a lot of attention in recent days as the federal hearings (the Joint Regulatory Hearing Process) on the project which allowed both proponents and opponents to the proposed open-pit, metallurgical coal mine (which is used in the production of steel, not the more well known thermal coal used for energy heating) which is located about 7-km north of Blairmore. The 1,500 hectare mine would be on top of Grassy Mountain.

<span>The company is operated by Benga Mining Ltd. with estimates, according to the Government of Canada “as proposed, the production capacity of the project would be a maximum of 4.5 million tonnes of processed coal per year, over a mine-life of about 25 years.” It is targeting Asian markets. </span>

<span>The goal is that mine’s construction would begin in the fall of this year. There is a lot of discussion on the mine’s viability and what it actually means to the residents of southwest Alberta. </span>

<span>There are a lot of proponents including some local governments. However, besides environmentalists, there are a lot of area ranchers and landowners who are concerned about their way of life as well what could happen to the landscape. </span>

<span>Bobbi Lambright, a spokesperson for the Livingstone Landowners Group which has been around since 2004, says that the membership, which is based in the Livingstone-Porcupine Hills area, are worried about the region’s future as once the area is physically altered, it is gone forever. </span>

<span>She and her group, simply believe the risks far outweigh the economic benefits.</span>

<span>”There’s been a lot of big numbers being thrown around saying this has got a lot of huge economic value and it is going to give all this money to the provincial government and our position is at what really happens,” says Lambright. “Let’s take real life examples with up front promises that actually (have been) realized. The answer is very, very seldom. There was a report done by a couple of economists who looked at three mines in British Columbia… do these economic benefits materialize? The answer was no. If you were to do the research at the mines in Alberta, you get this cycle of boom and bust. (like) how the oil system works… if the mine, when they start, makes a lot of money, that money doesn’t necessarily translate into the provincial government or other governments. The way the royalty system works is that they first have to pay off all their investment before they start paying any significant amount of royalties. </span>

<span>”Given what it takes to build these mines, it takes hundreds of millions of dollars, the royalty payments can be pretty thin. So much depends on the long term projections and we certainly get that’s reality, the changes in the world, moving away from carbon fuels and the new technologies, is this mine going to make money 10-15 years down the road. That is certainly affects the economics and the cost benefits for the region and the province. Unfortunately there are lots of examples of where mines shut down, changed ownerships, never completed reclamation projects, there is a lot of uncertainty.”</span>

<span>She explains for the last four decades these was a lot of public consultation of what should happen with the Eastern Slopes. The focus, in what Lambright thinks within all of that consultation is it resulted first and foremost was that they needed to protect the watershed she states. </span>

<span>”Within this region, water is everything. There is a lot of issues with water availability and it’s critically important that we protect our watershed to make sure that we have water now and in the future,” she explains. “It is equally important that that water be clean and available, Next to that we are very concerned about preserving the natural environment because of the benefits it provides to all of us as individual as well as supporting economic activities that exists in the region today, so that includes everything from the agriculture that happens like drawing for the irrigation from the Oldman River Basins, to the ranching and the native grasslands in the Eastern Slope, the recreational opportunities that support tourism. It is a very critical area that supports the unique biodiversity, wildlife and the vegetation in the Eastern Slope. That is what the background is of what exists and what is important to all of us.”</span>

<span>With the change in coal policy which essentially allows change of jurisdiction of what geographical areas coal mining is allowed. On June 1, 2020, the Alberta government officially rescinded the Coal Development Policy.</span>

<span>”What has happened is that we have had a change in the coal policy which basically opened up that whole area for open pit, mountain top coal mining and the consequences of that would be quite devastating in all of those areas. We are all concerned with all of it,” states Lambright. “The obvious concern is the water. When you are talking about building these huge mass mines it is essentially in the centre of the Oldman River Watershed. That means that you have destruction of that area, destruction of habitat, loss of riparian habituation, destruction of underground streams and tributaries, all of those companies would need tremendous volumes of water to operate. Not only has the government taken the step of rescinding the coal policy but now looking at opening up access to the water from those small tributaries and streams based right in those headwaters for use by the coal companies.”</span>

<span>Lambright says two different perspectives at the Grassy Mountain hearings were both well researched. On the one hand, there were very experienced, expert in-their-fields type of witnesses who were aiming a lot of concerns about the risk, on the other there were a lot of company and government officials who were supporting the project. </span>

<span>”What we all agreed on, mining in that area presents significant risk, that was a universally agreed statement, even (coal mining company) Benga in its material identified all of the risks of what could happen,” Lambright explains. “What the mining company’s position was that they can mitigate or minimize those mines affects… that is something we don’t particularly agree with with the evidence presented. That is the two views that you are dealing with. The other thing that is contentious is the potential economic benefits versus the potential significant impacts to water and environment and people’s health. The difference in view with the groups is that the mining companies feel that it is a boom for the area and for Alberta and there will be all these benefits.”</span>

<span>She notes the view they take is that the pro-mining views are grossly overstated and knowing what opponents know about coal mining. She points to across the border in B.C. or north at Grand Cache.</span>

<span>”Coal mining is a very boom and bust type of industry so you don’t have consistent economy opportunities. You will have layoffs, you will have times that are good, times when it is shut down. A lot of the benefit doesn’t accrue to the communities,” explains Lambright. “Again, that was seen in a study done in Sparwood (B.C.) where although there were people who were making good money working for the coal companies, that money didn’t necessarily end up in the local community. So, those are (some of the factors) as part of this discussion and our position is that the risk is so great and there are so many uncertainties that it would be inappropriate to allow something like that to happen given the high probability of the permanent risk or permanent damage that could occur. If that damage occurs, it is irreparable. There is nothing you can do once the damage is done.”</span>

<span>The landowners are extremely emotional and stressed about the situation. One time will tell what will happen.</span>

<span>”You have got the full range of emotions here. You have some people who are really angry because they know how devastating it can be. There’s also an element of just disbelief</span>

and sadness that you could throw away the work that was done. It was such comprehensive involvement of all the stakeholders over decades, suddenly it  it seems to be irrelevant and know that is distressing to a lot of people because it was a very thorough consultation exercise, drawing on experts drawing on data and drawing on multiple stakeholders to get to the framework that we had. Now it is taken apart.

<span>”If you would assume that there is significant risk to those industries that would have a downside negative impact, if you close to believe that it doesn’t affect anything and it carries on as before, then that’s where you can talk yourself into an economic upside. Personally that it is a bit naive that you can blow up the mountain and it is open put coal mine and have no impact on these other industries, given what we know about the pollutants and given what we know about the visual impact.”</span>

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