Federal assessment on Vista continues despite review application

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative


The federal impact assessment process of the proposed Vista Coal Underground Mine and the Vista Coal Mine Phase II Expansion Projects is going ahead while the judicial review application is waiting to be heard in federal court.

Karen Fish, communications advisor for the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, stated that on Oct. 16, the Federal Court established a timeline for the next steps in the review application. 

“As such, if Coalspur Mines (Operations) Ltd. wishes to proceed with the projects, it must submit an initial project description to the Agency, thereby commencing the planning phase under the Impact Assessment Act,” Fish stated in an email to The Voice.

Coalspur Mines LTD, the company that operates the Vista coal mine located just 10 kilometres east of Hinton, applied to the federal court for a judicial review of the Vista mine designation for a federal assessment.

Gerald Soroka, Member of Parliament for Yellowhead stated on Oct. 16 that a date and place had not yet been set by the judicial administrator for the judicial review application by Coalspur to be heard. 

“At this rate it seems that the government is trying to use their “death by delay” strategy to kill the project like they have so many other Natural Resource projects,” Soroka stated.

A case management conference regarding this application on Oct. 19 was cancelled.

Instead, the applicant was ordered by the federal case management judge to serve its affidavits and documentary exhibits, and file proof of service by Oct. 30.

In turn, the respondents were ordered to serve their affidavits and documentary exhibits, and file proof of service by Dec. 7.

All parties will complete cross-examinations of affidavits by Jan. 15, 2021. The applicant will then serve and file the applicant’s record by Feb. 4, 2021 and the respondent will serve and file their respective respondent’s records by March 22, 2021.

By April 1, 2021 the applicant will serve and file a requisition for herding and this order is made without cost, according to the court order from Oct. 16.

This means the request for a hearing must be filed by April 1, 2021.

The review application came after Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, Jonathan Wilkinson, designated the Vista mine for the federal impact assessment, reversing an earlier decision.

The notice of application stated that the designation is an unlawful, incorrect, unreasonable, and unconstitutional exercise of ministerial discretion.

Under the federal Impact Assessment Act, Minister Wilkinson has the discretionary authority to designate projects to require a Federal assessment even if they don’t exceed legislatively prescribed thresholds within the regulations to determine if an assessment is required.

The regulatory thresholds include coal mine expansions that would result in an increase in the area of mining operations of 50 per cent or more and a total coal production capacity of 5,000 tonnes per day or more after the expansion, according to the impact assessment agency’s analysis report.

The combined area of mining operations for the Vista mine Projects would be just below the 50 per cent threshold, but well above the total coal production capacity threshold of 5,000 tonnes per day.

The Impact Assessment Agency and the Minister agreed in December 2019 that a discretionary designation order was not appropriate for the proposed Phase II expansion of the Vista mine.

At the time, the minister stated that the potential risks to the environment and Indigenous rights would be dealt with appropriately by the provincial approval process.

With the addition of an underground mine project within Phase I, the minister said that the two Vista mine projects combined may result in adverse effects of greater magnitude than previously considered.

MP Soroka rose in the House of Commons in September to ask the government when the Vista mine would receive approval to expand operations.

“When will the government finally admit that it does not want any form of natural extraction in Canada?” Soroka questioned.

In response, Peter Schiefke, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, denied that statement and said there has been continued support for energy sector workers. 

“Just during this pandemic, we invested over $1.7B to help clean up abandoned oil wells. We have invested $750M to support the efforts in the oil sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. We have put in place measures to support the workers, and we will continue to do that,” Schiefke said.

Wilkinson designated the Vista Underground Test Mine Project and the Vista Coal Mine Phase II Expansion Project as reviewable under the federal impact assessment process on July 30, 2020.

He did not explain how areas of federal jurisdiction would be impacted, why the projects are considered together, and how the underground mine project would cause Phase II to be a designated project, stated Coalspur’s Notice of Application for review.

The Impact Assessment Agency re-confirmed on July 30 that the combined proposed expansions did not meet the 50 per cent threshold.

Various Canadian environmental, Indigenous, health, civil society, and faith groups, were behind a letter sent out this spring that called out the Canadian government for hypocrisy following its failure to designate the expansion plans for an environmental assessment.

The designation could delay the construction and expansion of this mine by six to nine years, stated an executive with the company that owns Coalspur Mine Ltd in a meeting with the Hinton Rotary in August.

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

Construction of Phase II was initially proposed to start in January 2022, while construction for the underground mine was proposed to start in 2020.

Over $700M has been invested into the mine to date with the understanding that expansion would be reviewed under the Alberta environmental review process.

An application for the underground mine was filed with the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) in 2019 and resubmitted on Feb. 5, 2020.

Respondents listed on the notice of application for the judicial review included the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, the attorney general of Canada, Louis Bull Tribe, Keepers of the water council, keepers of the Athabasca watershed society, the west Athabasca watershed bioregional society, and Stoney Nakoda Nations.