** Update **
On May 19, 2021, Montem Resources asked Minister Wilkinson for a 30-day extension on his decision about designating the Tent Mountain project for federal review. The company said it needs the additional time to resolve the "concerns of the First Nation in closest proximity to the Project."
The federal government agreed to the request on May 25. Minister Wilkinson will now have until July 1, 2021, to make his final decision.
We cannot afford to continue conceding to corporate interests. Minister Wilkinson must designate Tent Mountain for federal review immediately!
The Tent Mountain project, a massive coal mine proposed on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, has so far managed to dodge a federal review process, despite the far-reaching and irreparable damage it could leave behind.
And while the province of Alberta has temporarily paused coal exploration projects in Category 2 lands after widespread opposition, Tent Mountain is located in Category 4 and can proceed as planned.
The project is currently slated for a provincial review by the Alberta Energy Regular (AER). It has been deliberately designed to just narrowly fall below the production threshold that would automatically trigger a more stringent federal review process.
And yet, it will inevitably have an impact on many issues that fall under federal jurisdiction, including Indigenous rights and ways of life, water quality and access, and at-risk species.
What’s more, Tent Mountain is just one of eight metallurgical coal projects now under consideration for the Eastern Slopes. Given the possible extensive expansion of coal mining activity in this region, the cumulative effects of these projects must be assessed before further coal exploration resumes or extraction begins.
To protect, sustain, and respect this land, the peoples who live here, and their ways of life, a federal assessment is warranted and necessary.
What is Tent Mountain?
The Tent Mountain project is an intensive open-pit mine that would produce metallurgical coal used in steel-making. It’s operated by an Alberta-based subsidiary of the Australian company Montem Resources Limited.
The project would cover an area of approximately 1,700 hectares, straddling the Alberta and British Columbia border, and operate both in previously-mined areas and on new, undisturbed land.
Tent Mountain plans to produce 4,925 tonnes of metallurgical coal per day—just 75 tonnes short of the 5,000-tonnes-a-day threshold that would automatically trigger a federal impact assessment.
The pending provincial review for the project would involve a faster and less comprehensive hearing and approval process than a federal review. The latter could take several months, if not years, to be completed.
Under Canada’s Impact Assessment Act, however, the minister can still choose to require a federal assessment even if a proposed project falls below the required production threshold.
The minister can do so if he believes an activity can cause adverse effects within federal jurisdiction; if there are significant public concerns about those effects; or if the project could have adverse impacts on the rights of Indigenous peoples.
There are currently several requests before Minister Jonathan Wilkinson—including from First Nations in southern Alberta and British Columbia, environmental groups, and local ranchers and landowners—to do just that.
A spokesperson from his office has said the decision on whether or not Tent Mountain will be designated for federal review will likely come around June 1.
Indigenous rights and ways of life
The Blood Tribe/Kainai Nation, Siksika Nation, and Ktunaxa First Nation have all requested a federal review of Tent Mountain, pointing to the potential damage the project could do to their ability to exercise constitutionally-protected Aboriginal and Treaty rights.
Mining activity could adversely impact the ability of Indigenous peoples in the area to hunt, fish, trap, and gather medicinal and ceremonial plants on their ancestral lands, leading to the loss of livelihoods, traditional ways of life, and culture.
Latasha Calf Robe, who is from Kainai Nation and co-lead of the Niitsitapi Water Protectors, told The Narwhal recently that Tent Mountain and other proposed developments are “in essential areas where we continue to practise our ways of life.”
“Given the intimate relationship between First Nations culture, language, ceremonial practices and the intimate relationships with the land there, we can foresee the long-lasting impacts that this will have on our rights to practise our traditional ways of life in the way that we have since time immemorial,” she said.
These First Nations are further hoping that a federal review would be better equipped than the provincial regulator to assess the cumulative impacts of all mining in the area on Indigenous rights.
Water from the Eastern Slopes is shared by all Prairie provinces
This region of the Rockies is home to the headwaters for the Oldman River watershed, which supplies water to the southern prairie lands of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Numerous streams and waterways crisscross the area where mining will occur, many of which are part of the Oldman River watershed.
The watershed is already prone to drought, and existing concerns about the impact of drought on downstream communities will only be exacerbated as the effects of climate change become more and more evident.
There are also serious concerns about water contamination. Waste rock piles from open pit mining contain selenium, arsenic, nitrates, and other pollutants. Exposed to the weather, these elements make their way into the surrounding air and water.
Selenium is of special concern. Water with elevated selenium levels is particularly dangerous to fish and aquatic life. In humans, long-term exposure to high levels of selenium (through drinking water, for example) is known to cause serious health problems.
Currently, no proven technologies exist that effectively prevent and control the release of selenium from an active mine—nor to successfully treat selenium contamination in the long term after mining operations cease.
Tent Mountain and other slated mines also jeopardize existing interprovincial water agreements.
The provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba signed the Master Agreement on Apportionment in 1969 to ensure collaboration on how best to share their limited and vital transboundary waters. Multiple coal mines in the Rockies would threaten the water quality and quantity requirements stipulated under that agreement, as well the spirit of cooperation and consultation that it has tried to foster.
The Council of Canadians recently submitted a letter to Minister Wilkinson, as part of a broader coalition of concerned groups, asking that he help uphold this important transboundary agreement.
Species at risk
The headwaters of the Oldman River are also crucial habitat for westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout—both of which are designated as ‘threatened’ under the federal Species at Risk Act and are likely to become ‘endangered’ if nothing is done to reverse the factors that threaten them.
Open-pit coal mining would lead to catastrophic results for these aquatic species. It would leach toxic concentrations of selenium into the water they depend on for their habitat, causing deformities, nerve damage, and reproductive failure.
Mining would also threaten the whitebark pine in the area, a tree species native to Alberta that is listed as an ‘endangered species’ and faces imminent extinction either totally or in the region.
Grizzly bears in the region are also ‘species of concern,’ according to the Species at Risk Act. This means that they may become threatened or endangered because of biological issues or other identified threat.
The Tent Mountain project would put the lives of these species, which are already under considerable stress, in even greater peril. Mining will only intensify the threats they face due to a significant increase in vehicular traffic, noise, human presence, and loss of habitat.
The federal government has not just the jurisdiction but the legal obligation to protect the habitat for species listed under the Species at Risk Act. It is vital that Minister Wilkinson fulfill this responsibility and require an impact assessment for the Tent Mountain project.
A federal review is imperative—and possible
Tent Mountain is currently being evaluated within very restrictive terms—terms that do not acknowledge the depth and breadth of the mine’s impact.
There are reasonable doubts that a provincial review alone would adequately consider the project’s impact on Indigenous rights, ecological issues, and interprovincial agreements. These concerns all relate to areas that fall under federal jurisdiction. A federal assessment is imperative to ensure that the comprehensive review this proposed mine requires is, in fact, conducted.
And a federal designation for the project is entirely possible. Public pressure has in the past succeeded in convincing the federal government to step in.
Last year, Minister Wilkinson ordered a federal assessment of the Vista coal mine, despite initially stating that a review by the AER would be sufficient. This reversal would not have been possible without the mounting pressure from Indigenous peoples, environmental organizations, and the broader public.
We have the power to persuade the federal government to step in and protect Indigenous rights, shared waters, and at-risk species.