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Feds consider Vista Coal impacts

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Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Decision expected by July 30 on potential federal study

While Canada plans to phase-out coal-fired electricity by 2030, 47 organizations have voiced concern over how the expansion of the Vista Coal mine outside of Hinton will affect that goal.

Groups argued in a public letter that if Canadians are lobbying to phase out burning coal, then Canadians shouldn’t feed thermal coal for consumption overseas, and urged the federal government to reconsider an earlier decision not to conduct an impact assessment.

Federal Environment Minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, stated last week that an impact assessment is now being considered on the Vista mine, operated by Coalspur Mine Ltd., also  known as Bighorn Mining Ltd.

“The Minister and the Impact Assessment Agency (IAA) of Canada have received requests to designate the Coalspur Vista Coal Underground Mine and Expansion Activities Project, proposed by Coalspur Mine (Operations) Ltd. The agency is currently conducting an analysis and will make a recommendation to the Minister on whether to designate the project,” stated Moira Kelly, Wilkinson’s press secretary.

“Our government has also launched a strategic assessment on thermal coal to better understand the potential impact of thermal coal mining activity to ensure effects within federal jurisdiction—especially related to climate change – are fully considered in the federal impact assessment process.”

The Minister is expected to make a decision on designation by July 30. 

The designation request that is before the minister concerns the underground expansion to the existing Phase I project, which was not part of an earlier request in December considered by the minister. 

On December 20, 2019, the minister determined that the Phase II did not warrant designation under the IAA and he left it up to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) to decide if the Vista coal mine expansion should be approved.

Wilkinson reasoned the potential risks to the environment and Indigenous rights would be dealt with by a provincial approval process.

Adverse effects within federal jurisdiction are expected to be managed by legislative mechanisms such as the Fisheries Act by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the provincial environmental assessment and regulatory processes, he stated.

A federal news release on Dec. 20 stated that the Coalspur Vista Coal Mine Phase II Project was undergoing an environmental assessment by the Province of Alberta. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator is responsible for the comprehensive environmental review of coal projects in Alberta including input from the Aboriginal Consultation Office (ACO) that directs project applicants to consult with First Nations and Métis settlements that may be impacted by a potential project. 

“The Coalspur Vista Mine has submitted applications supporting a potential expansion to the AER,” stated Kavi Bal, senior press secretary of the Ministry of Energy.

Several environmental, Indigenous, health, civil society, and faith groups, are behind the letter that called out the Canadian government for hypocrisy following its failure to designate Coalspur Ltd.’s expansion plans for an environmental assessment.

The letter stated that allowing the expansion clashes with the country’s commitment to “powering past coal.”

“Requesting a federal assessment for the Vista coal mine expansion is about safeguarding Alberta’s wilderness from a legacy of industrial scars and contamination, ultimately preserving the quality of life of all Albertans,” stated Nissa Petterson, conservation specialist of the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), which signed the letter.

AWA is concerned that Alberta’s current case-by-case regulatory approach, along with incomplete provincial land-use planning, will not sufficiently address and mitigate the potential negative impacts this project could have on local wildlife populations and environmentally significant landscapes.

While thermal coal produced from the Vista mine is destined for export markets and won’t affect the domestic phase-out of thermal coal use, AWA believes it will maintain or increase greenhouse gas emissions in those markets. 

“It diminishes our collective, global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” stated Petterson.

Coalspur Mine Ltd, owned by U.S. coal giant Cline Group, began shipping coal to primarily Asian markets from Vista mine in May 2019 The company proposed to expand its existing Vista Coal Mine Project, an open-pit surface coal mine for the extraction and export of thermal coal. 

The expansion would be located approximately 3.5 kilometres east of Hinton at its western boundary.

The coal mined from the combined phase 1 and 2 operation would be transported by rail to west coast ports and then shipped overseas. 

A government webpage states Coalspur would operate the mine as one complex with potential to increase annual production from 10M to 15M tonnes on average.

Coalspur (Bighorn Mining) did not respond to questions from The Hinton Voice by our press deadline.