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Riversdale Resources Ltd. is appealing a decision of a joint provincial-federal regulatory panel rejecting its proposed Grassy Mountain mine, in southwest Alberta.The Canadian Press

The company whose application to build a new open-pit coal mine in the Rocky Mountains was rejected last month will appeal the decision, saying regulators ignored evidence and failed to consult with affected Indigenous groups.

Riversdale Resources Ltd. , a subsidiary of Australian mining giant Hancock Prospecting, wanted to build its Grassy Mountain project on the site of an old mine that closed in the 1960s in Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass. But last month a joint federal-provincial regulatory panel rejected the proposal, saying it would likely result in significant adverse effects on the environment and on some First Nations.

Ultimately, it declared the mine was not in the public interest.

The Grassy Mountain mine was to be operated by Riversdale subsidiary Benga Mining Ltd. It was forecast to produce around 93 million tonnes of metallurgical coal (which is used in making steel) over its 23-year life.

In its application to appeal, lodged with the Alberta courts Friday, Benga argued that the joint federal-provincial review panel had denied the company procedural fairness, and ignored or misconstrued relevant evidence the company put forward regarding project economics, surface water quality, and the habitat of westslope cutthroat trout.

It also said the panel “improperly relied on layperson, non-expert and unfounded opinion evidence lacking any science-based support to unjustifiably dismiss or disregard Benga’s expert evidence.”

Panel says Grassy Mountain coal mine in Alberta Rockies not in public interest

Katie Morrison, a conservation director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said that assertion is “an insult” to experts that presented to the panel.

“It’s a little mind-boggling how they could look at all those people with decades of expertise in their field who are academics, who are PhDs, who are presenting evidence on the environmental impact or the efficacy of the mediations, and say that those are laypeople,” she said in an interview. “It’s actually a little bizarre.”

The joint review panel laid out myriad reasons it concluded that the coal mine isn’t in the public interest, Ms. Morrison said, including questions over water quality, species at risk, and Indigenous rights.

“Just because the company participates in the process doesn’t mean that they are guaranteed a favorable outcome,” she said.

“The process is set up to judge the validity of their work – to get other expert opinions, and really see whether they can do what they’re saying they’re going to do. And in this case, the joint review panel just was not convinced.”

The joint review of the Grassy Mountain mine began in August, 2018. It included thousands of pages of records comprising various technical studies and additional information requests from the panel, and an on-site visit.

The process also included more than a month of public hearings, beginning in October, 2020, which considered submissions from various federal departments and agencies, municipal governments, industry organizations and non-governmental organizations both for and against the project.

The hearings also included Indigenous groups. But in its application to appeal, Benga said the participation of those groups was limited because the communities had entered into agreements that gave them economic interests in the mine.

That included the Piikani Nation, whose elected leadership had been supportive of the project.

In a February bulletin to members, for example, the Chief and council pointed out that Benga had already made financial contributions to a Piikani Nation Trust Account, and various community, social and scholarship programs. The company had also created training and procurement policies to facilitate jobs and careers for Piikani members and businesses, and funded an environmental and community-based monitoring program for the life of the mine.

In its own application to appeal the panel’s decision, also lodged Friday, Piikani argued the Alberta government’s Aboriginal Consultation Office didn’t do enough to assess the adequacy of consultations with Indigenous groups, particularly when it came to the economic opportunities for the nation.

“These errors were fundamental” to the panel’s finding that the Grassy Mountain mine was not in the public interest, it said, and must be reconsidered.

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