First Nations say Alberta review of coal project inadequate, seek federal involvement

EDMONTON — Two of southern Alberta's largest First Nations have asked the federal government to step into an environmental review of a coal mine proposed for the Rocky Mountains.

In a letter to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, the Siksika and Kainai say the review planned by Alberta's energy regulator of the Montem Resources Tent Mountain proposal falls far short.

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"The proposed provincial review by the Alberta Energy Regulator is insufficient to appropriately identify the impacts to areas of federal jurisdiction, including on Kainai’s rights," says the letter from Chief Roy Fox.

An Alberta Energy spokesman said Tuesday that Alberta maintains jurisdiction over its natural resources.

Australia-based Montem plans an open-pit mine in the Crowsnest Pass that would straddle the Alberta-British Columbia boundary. The area was mined until 1983 and Montem planned to rely on previously issued approvals for its project.

In January, the Alberta Energy Regulator ruled Montem's plans required a new review. The company has since set out draft terms of reference for it.

The Kainai and Siksika have compiled a long list of concerns over those terms.

They point out that the Tent Mountain plan is to extract 4,925 tonnes of coal per day, a whisker shy of the 5,000-tonne level that would automatically trigger a federal review.

"Skirting just below the thresholds for federal designation," wrote Siksika Chief Ouray Crowfoot.

He noted that Tent Mountain would be right beside another mine being assessed, North Coal's Michel project.

"(Tent Mountain's) proximity to the threshold and the significant coal development in the area gives rise to the need for a federal review," Crowfoot wrote.

At least four other mines are being considered in the immediate area and the totality of potential coal expansion needs to be considered, said Fox.

"The cumulative impact of this activity has the potential to significantly and adversely impact the ecological integrity of the area and Kainai’s ability to use this area for the practice of their Aboriginal and Treaty rights."

The First Nations say the mine would fall under the Livingston-Porcupine Hills land-use plan, in which watershed protection is supposed to be the highest priority.

They are concerned about downstream contamination from selenium and say Montem has acknowledged water is already highly allocated.

"The proponent states that these water quality concerns may be mitigated, and even improved, by a modern water management regime ... but this remains to be seen," wrote Fox.

"Kainai’s experience is that modern water management regimes for coal projects have not been effective."

The First Nations say the mine would affect several areas of federal jurisdiction, including fish habitat, migratory birds and endangered species. They say Ottawa should step in because the mine would affect British Columbia, as well as downstream water users in Saskatchewan.

They add Alberta's review plans make no mention of treaty rights. The Alberta Energy Regulator is barred by law from considering constitutional questions.

The Kainai and Siksika point out there is little land left in the area where they can conduct traditional cultural practices that haven't already been affected by mining, energy, forestry, agriculture or settlement. They take issue with Montem's argument that since the proposed mine site is already disturbed, further work shouldn't be a problem.

"The baseline data should not reflect a previously disturbed mine that operated for decades, but the site before mining began," Fox wrote. "This will give an accurate picture of what the impacts of mining on the site have been."

Kavi Bal of Alberta Energy said federal involvement isn't needed.

"The province has the constitutional jurisdiction to regulate and develop its natural resources," he wrote in an email. "Any proposed projects must go through an intensive regulatory process ... that includes both consultation and engagement with the First Nations and Metis."

Bal pointed out that Montem has been previously told by the federal assessment agency that no federal review would be required.

Nevertheless, Environment Canada spokeswoman Moira Kelly wrote in an email that the First Nation requests are being considered.

"The agency will prepare a recommendation for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change," she said.

Among other factors, the agency will consider how close a proposal is to a trigger threshold, cumulative and cross-border effects, whether the project is being assessed by another government and impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Ottawa is currently involved in assessments of five other coal projects in the region.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2021.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

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