Australian coal companies not giving up on southern Alberta mines in wake of Grassy Mountain rejection

The company behind the proposed Grassy Mountain coal mine in southern Alberta says it is “reviewing its options” after a review panel deemed the project “not in the public interest” and advised the federal government to reject it.

Meanwhile, two other companies with coal leases in the same area say they plan to continue pressing forward with their own proposed mining projects.

Australia-based Riversdale Resources submitted a proposal to regulators in 2016 for the Grassy Mountain project, located about seven kilometres north of the community of Blairmore in the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass.

The company wants to resume open-pit coal mining on a previously disturbed site, where mining activity was started decades ago and then abandoned.

Riversdale estimates the project could produce up to 4.5 million tonnes of steel-making coal annually over a 23-year lifespan, creating hundreds of jobs.

The project had the support of the mayor of Crowsnest Pass and many residents who looked forward to the employment opportunities it would bring. Others in the area opposed the mine, however, fearing damage to the environment and tourism.

During the review panel’s hearings, concerns were raised about the risk of mining activity contaminating the headwaters of the Oldman River with selenium. The element commonly found in coal mines is toxic to fish in large doses, and has been linked to fish deaths and deformations downstream of coal mines just to the west in British Columbia.

Heavy equipment operates at an open-pit coal mine in B.C., just west of the Alberta border. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

The provincial review panel decided the environmental risks were substantial.

“The mitigation measures proposed are not sufficient to fully mitigate these effects,” says the panel’s report, released last week.

The report adds that the project could impair the cultural and physical heritage of three local First Nations.

The panel, which was part of a joint federal-provincial review process, advised the federal government to turn down the mine. It also denied the project’s permit applications under provincial laws.

Riversdale ‘disappointed at this initial outcome’

In a statement issued Tuesday, Riversdale says it is “disappointed at this initial outcome” and will be “reviewing its options moving forward.”

It says it “will be engaging with the relevant authorities to better understand the reasons for the decision to obtain assurance that the process has been fair and transparent, has accorded sufficient weight to recognized experts and established industry practices, and that the decision is not effectively an anti-development decision.”

A sign marks the road to Grassy Mountain, where a proposed steelmaking coal mine has been turned down by a review panel. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Riversdale noted the project has received letters of support from a wide range of Indigenous leaders, including those with the Piikani Nation, the Blood Tribe/Kainai, Siksika Nation, Stoney Nakoda Nation and Tsuut’ina Nation, as well as the Métis Nation of Alberta and the National Coalition of Chiefs.

“Engagement with First Nations and Métis communities in the region began five years ago at the earliest stages of the project,” the statement says.

Montem not giving up on Tent Mountain 

Montem Resources, another Australian mining company, says it is watching all this closely as it continues with its own plans for an open-pit mine at nearby Tent Mountain.

Tent Mountain was also the site of an open-pit mine decades ago before mining activity was abandoned.

Australia-based Montem Resources wants to mine for coal on Tent Mountain, just southwest of the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass. (Google Earth)

In a statement of its own on Tuesday, Montem described the rejection of Grassy Mountain as “unexpected.”

The company said it believes “a number of factors differentiate the Tent Mountain project from the Grassy Mountain coal project application and the stated reasons for its denial.”

Montem is also awaiting a final decision from federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson on whether the Tent Mountain project will require a federal review.

The company says it had previously been told that the project “did not meet threshold limits that trigger a federal review.”

But Wilkinson said last week that the federal government will step in to conduct environmental reviews of any new coal projects that could release selenium into water bodies.

Montem expects a decision by July 1.

Atrum continues with Elan project

Atrum, another Australian firm, has extensive coal leases to the north of Grassy Mountain and says the rejection of that project hasn’t deterred its own mining plans. 

“Atrum plans to take the time needed to fully understand the reasons for the decision and, where warranted, incorporate any learnings applicable … into the design of its Elan Hard Coking Coal Project,” the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Coal exploration activity in January 2021 in the Dutch Creek area of Southern Alberta, where Atrum holds coal leases. (Kevin Van Tighem)

The company says the review panel’s decision “reflects the specific circumstances” of the Grassy Mountain project and “does not speak to the importance of metallurgical coal for Alberta and Canada, nor to the specific merits of the Elan Project.”

“It is Atrum’s expectation that the Elan Project will be judged on its own merits.”

When the Grassy Mountain decision came out last week, Atrum requested a halt on trading of its shares on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Trading has since resumed and the company’s share price fell to $0.03 AUD Tuesday, down from $0.05 earlier in June. Atrum shares traded at a peak of nearly $1.95 AUD back in 2013.

Montem share prices also fell to $0.03 AUD Tuesday, down from $0.10 earlier in June and a peak of $0.28 last November.

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