The Grassy Mountain Mine Project
Benga Mining Ltd. (Benga) is seeking approval to operate the proposed Grassy Mountain Mine Project (the “Project”) near Blairmore, AB, about 120 km west of the Blood Tribe reserve lands. The Project would produce about 4.5 million tonnes of metallurgical coal annually. Metallurgical coal is high quality coal used in the process of making steel and other metals, it is not burned to generate electricity. The Project will occupy about 2,800 hectares of land (half Crown land and half private land) and operate for about 25 years. Unlike other potential mines in the Crowsnest Pass region, a significant portion of the Project area is a old mine site that was not reclaimed when the former mine closed.
An application for approval of the Project was submitted to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (“CEAA)”, which is now called the Impact Assessment Agency (“IAA”), and the Alberta Energy Regulator (“AER”) in 2016. The Project requires the approval of both the IAA and AER and is currently undergoing a joint hearing by the two regulatory agencies. The hearing concluded in December 2020. A formal decision on the Project will be made sometime in later 2021.
As the Project is about 120 km west of the Blood Tribe it is unlikely to impact air or water quality on Blood Tribe reserve lands based on studies conducted. Benga has also invested considerable resources to develop a thorough plan for managing water quality issues associated with its mining operations. All water from the Project must meet water quality specifications to ensure safety and sustainability. The Blood Tribe will have a key role in monitoring the Project with Benga throughout the operation of the mine as discussed in more detail below.
Consultation with the Blood Tribe
A great deal of care and effort was invested by the Blood Tribe in engagement with Benga over a period of years. Starting in 2013 the Tribe struggled to ensure that they would have the ability to be adequately engaged in the consultation process. As part of the consultation process with Benga a cumulative impact assessment study and a traditional land use study were conducted by the Blood Tribe, with significant input from Blood Tribe traditional knowledge holders. Those studies informed the development of the conditions on the Project that Benga has agreed to. It was only on the basis of these studies and these conditions that the Blood Tribe engaged in negotiations on the agreement with Benga.
Benga has committed to reclaim the mining area in a manner that will meet or exceed current federal and provincial standards. Further, Benga has agreed that the reclamation of the mine site will be planned and carried out by way of a consensus based process with the Blood Tribe that must take into account the Blood Tribe’s traditional knowledge and use of the lands for traditional purposes. The goal of the process is to restore the mine site to a state that can support Treaty rights and traditional land use. The maps below show the state of the Project area presently and in the first year of mine operations, and in 12 years time and 25 years from now when the mine ceases to operate. The tan area on the first map indicates land that was left unreclaimed from a former mine, and the green shows the progress of reclamation of the Project area over 25 years.
The Blood Tribe supported the Project only when Benga agreed to several binding conditions, in summary those conditions are:
- Benga has agreed to engage in on-going consultation with the Blood Tribe throughout the life of the Project including the reclamation of the mine area.
- In addition to the above, an Environmental Stewardship Committee consisting of representatives from all First Nations in the Treaty 7 region and Benga will monitor the Project for the purpose of identifying and addressing environmental issues.
- Benga has agreed to a number of significant measures to actively support the Blood Tribe’s connection to and use of the Crowsnest Pass Region that can support Treaty rights and traditional land use.
- Culturally significant sites identified by the Blood Tribe in the mine area will be protected where possible throughout the operation of the mine and the reclamation of the mine area.
- Benga has agreed to make an annual financial contribution to the Blood Tribe linked to production from the mine. These funds will only be used for community purposes.
It is important to understand the limitations of consultation that result both from the law on the duty to consult and the systems and policies used by the provincial and federal governments to carry out and monitor consultation. The Blood Tribe does not have veto over the Project. However, significant effort was made by the Blood Tribe to use the duty to consult to ensure that if the Project proceeds it will do so only on the conditions discussed above.
Other Coal Mine Projects
Chief and Council wish to be clear that support for the Grassy Mountain Mine Project does not mean that the Blood Tribe will support any further coal mine development in our traditional territory. The Grassy Mountain Mine Project is unique as it will occur on a formerly disturbed mine that was not reclaimed to a usable state. The Project is not in the main headwaters of the Oldman River Basin like other proposed coal projects. The conditions negotiated by the Blood Tribe for this Project will help ensure that mining is conducted to the highest environmental standards and the mining area is reclaimed and returned to a state that supports our Treaty rights and cultural uses of the land.
Chief and Council have clearly and forcefully communicated to the Government of Alberta that the Blood Tribe will not accept further coal mining development in the Crowsnest Pass Region. Other mine projects are proposed in very sensitive and mostly undisturbed areas of the Crowsnest Pass Region that have the potential to impact Grizzlies, Big Horn Sheep, Elk and Bull Trout, as well as the headwaters of the Oldman and Livingstone Rivers which are source water to the Blood Tribe. To ensure protection of the area, in November 2020, a decision was made to file a legal challenge against the Government of Alberta’s decision to remove a ban on open pit mining in sensitive areas of the Crowsnest Pass Region. Siksika is participating as the Blood Tribe’s partner in the legal challenge.
Chief and Council have also recently taken steps to oppose proposed new mining projects in the Elk Valley area of BC on the basis that those proposed projects may have a significant potential for negative cumulative impacts in our traditional territory. Most recently, in response to submissions from the Blood Tribe, the federal Minister of Environment has ordered a review of Teck Resource’s proposed Castle mining project. The BC Environmental Assessment Agency and the federal IAA have also recognized a duty to consult with the Blood Tribe on two other major mine projects: NWP Coal’s Crown Mountain Project and North Coal’s Michel Project. These three projects are either on the BC/AB border or mere kilometers away from sensitive areas in Alberta that are of great importance to the Blood Tribe.