Feds call for impact assessment on Vista Coal expansion project

Bighorn Mining photo

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

The Vista Coal Mine Phase II Expansion Project near Hinton is facing a review by the new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.

Jonathan Wilkinson, federal minister of environment and climate change, previously decided against an impact assessment for the project in December but has now reconsidered that decision.

This decision came after 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.

Vista Coal Mine is an open-pit surface coal mine for the extraction and export of thermal coal. 

The groups urged the federal government to reconsider their earlier decision not to conduct an impact assessment, as well as consider an assessment for the proposed expansion project.

Physical activities associated with the Vista Coal Mine Phase II Expansion Project along with the Vista Coal Underground Mine Project will be reviewed.

The federal Impact Assessment Agency of Canada will study how the coal mine expansion might affect matters of federal jurisdiction, including effects on fish habitat, species at risk, Indigenous people, and their treaty rights to hunting and fishing.

The Minister considered the potential for the projects to cause adverse effects within federal jurisdiction, adverse direct or incidental effects, public concern related to these effects, as well as adverse impacts on Aboriginal and Treaty rights.

Premier Jason Kenney told the Voice during his visit to the Hinton Training Centre that this was a clear violation of the province’s jurisdiction and that the provincial government will do whatever it takes to defend its jurisdiction.

“This is a mine that has safely operated for a very long time, it’s a key element of the economy here and we’re going to do everything we can to defend those jobs,” Kenney said.

Jess Sinclair, press secretary to Jason Nixon Minister of Environment and Parks, also expressed disappointment in the decision by the federal government to intercede in the Vista Mine Project approval at this point.

“As Section 92a of the Canadian Constitution guarantees Alberta the right to jurisdiction over our own resource development, we will be studying the issue over the coming days and taking all appropriate action,” she stated.

The Government of Canada website stated that on Aug. 28, 2019, the Impact Assessment Act, the Canadian Energy Regulator Act, and the Navigation Protection Act came into force. 

The Impact Assessment Act created the new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to proactively assess “big-picture issues,” such as climate change, biodiversity, and species at risk.

The combined area of mining operations for the Vista mine Projects would be just below the 50 per cent threshold, and with 18,683 tonnes per day, well above the total coal production capacity threshold of 5,000 tonnes per day described in the Physical Activities Regulations.

The minister acknowledged that both projects may result in adverse effects of greater magnitude than previously considered, in particular to fish and fish habitat, species at risk, and Indigenous peoples.

The Projects may also cause adverse impacts on Aboriginal and Treaty rights, such as hunting, fishing and gathering, he reasoned.

Coalspur Mine Ltd, or better known locally as Bighorn Mining, proposed the Vista Coal Underground Mine Project and the Vista Coal Mine Phase II Expansion Project, to expand the existing Vista Coal Mine Phase I Project.

The expansions would be located approximately 10 kilometres east of Hinton, according to the recent decision by Wilkinson.

Coalspur Mine Ltd is owned by U.S. coal giant, Cline Group, and began shipping coal to primarily Asian markets from Vista mine in May 2019.

The coal mined from the combined phase 1 and 2 operation would be transported by rail to west coast ports, then shipped via ocean vessels to foreign markets. 

According to a Government of Alberta webpage, Coalspur would operate the mine as one complex with potential to increase annual production from 10M to 15M tonnes on average.

Both Alberta and Canadian governments have committed to stop burning coal to generate electricity by 2030.