The decision, announced Wednesday, will encompass all proposals from the eight steel coal exploration projects in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said. “For projects that have the potential to release selenium into water bodies, I will nominate all of these projects in the future for federal review and assessment,” he said.
“I think most Albertans would expect a problem like selenium and its impacts on waterways and fish to be assessed.
The coal controversy in Alberta
Coal mining has been controversial in Alberta for over a year, since the province’s United Conservative government revoked a 1976 policy that protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies from surface coal mines.
Several First Nations, as well as municipalities and many Albertans, have asked the federal minister to intervene.
Environmental groups see federal reviews as more rigorous than their provincial counterparts and provide more opportunities for public participation.
Selenium is common in coal rocks and is found in all coal beds in Alberta.
In high doses, it is toxic to fish and difficult to manage once it enters groundwater. It caused major problems in Elk Valley, British Columbia.
Concerns about fish habitat
Some coal projects, such as Teck Resource’s Elk Valley expansion plans, are already under federal review. Wilkinson said the new policy will apply to any new mine, regardless of its size.
He said the effects of selenium on fish warrant federal government intervention.
“It must be considered in terms of its effects on fish and fish habitat, which are areas of federal jurisdiction. So it’s appropriate for the federal government to say, “This requires review. “
Several mining companies operating in Alberta have told investors that the federal regulator previously informed them that they were not large enough to trigger its involvement.
“I don’t think the Impact Assessment Agency told them that,” Wilkinson said.
Final decisions on any review are only made after a company has made a formal proposal, he said.
“Only then will you be able to assess whether it will really be large enough or whether it will have potential impacts large enough to reach that threshold.” “
Wilkinson announced the decision in an open letter to Edmonton NDP MP Heather McPherson, who in March asked him for a regional environmental assessment of coal mining in the Rockies. She supported her request with a petition of 18,000 names.
She also introduced a bill that would amend the legislation to include Ottawa in any coal mining review.
Wilkinson said he decided not to do a regional review because it takes years to complete.
Federal reviews are conducted within legislated timelines and should not add lengthy approval times, Wilkinson said. They are also able to consider the cumulative effects of several developments.
Wilkinson said the new policy gives industry more certainty about which projects will be assessed and how they will be reviewed.
“It’s not about saying no to all projects. This is to make sure that we assess and think about how best to ensure that these projects are carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner. “
Last week, Wilkinson released a policy on coal for power generation that virtually shut the door on new mines. Thermal coal is the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases.
The federal government is also preparing new regulations for coal mine effluents, including selenium. Wilkinson said these will likely arrive in the fall.
Earlier this year, after a public outcry, Alberta restored the protections of its 1976 policy, suspended the sale of new exploration leases, and suspended permits for land clearing, road construction and drilling. He has also formed an expert panel to hear from people on the issue, which is expected to report in November.