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An Alberta coal mine at the centre of a federal review has temporarily laid off 300 people as it awaits word on whether it will be allowed to construct new tailings ponds to hold waste.

The Vista mine, operated by Coalspur Mines Ltd., is about 270 kilometres west of Edmonton, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near the town of Hinton. Mayor Marcel Michaels says the current tailings storage is reaching capacity, which means the mine needs new ponds to continue operating.

After Coalspur applied to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) for that permit on Aug. 17, the Louis Bull Tribe and the Gunn Métis in Lac Ste. Anne both submitted objections to the project. But the regulator told The Globe and Mail the Hinton-based miner had failed to address the concerns from the two groups, and so it decided to send the application to a public hearing.

“A hearing on this matter will proceed unless the issues are resolved through other means, such as direct negotiation, alternative dispute resolution, and withdrawal of the statement of concern,” the AER said.

But there’s no timeline on how long that review will take – a fact that frustrates Mr. Michaels.

“Three hundred people have been laid off until this plays out. There’s nothing you can really do if you don’t have access to a tailings pond,” he said.

The mine provides hundreds of jobs for the town of 10,000 people, and Mr. Michaels told The Globe the issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

“[Coalspur] applied in August, but there’s still not a date for a hearing. Why? It’s mind-boggling. What’s prioritized over this? We have 300 people unemployed and taxpayers are paying for their EI and everything else. There should be a date already set,” he said.

Vista is also facing a separate federal review by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. Ottawa said in July the project would have “significant” environmental effects that fall under federal jurisdiction, thus triggering the need for an assessment. Coalspur took the federal government to court in response.

The mine, which began shipping coal for export in 2019, is looking to more than double its output. It currently produces about six million tonnes a year of thermal coal – which is burned to generate electricity – that it exports mostly to Asian markets. The expansion would increase output to between 13 million and 15 million tonnes.

Concerns about coal mining have rippled through Alberta in recent months, after the United Conservative government ripped up a 45-year-old coal and land protection policy in May with no public consultation. The subsequent backlash and a legal challenge resulted in the government reinstating that policy this week. It has promised widespread consultations as it draws up a new policy.

While the federal agency continues to assess the expansion project, the Louis Bull Tribe says it is concerned about how the new tailings ponds at the heart of the current AER application could affect its members.

While most members reside on reserve lands in Maskwacis, about 250 kilometres east of the mine, some live at the Smallboy Camp, approximately 55 km southeast of Vista.

The Smallboy Camp was founded in the late 1960s by members of Maskwacis-based First Nations – including citizens from Louis Bull – who wanted to live in a way and in a location that allowed them to maintain their culture and connection with the land.

If approved, the new tailings ponds would “have a direct and adverse impact on Louis Bull Tribe’s ability to practise constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights,” the community argued in its submission to the AER.

“These impacts to rights will extend beyond the project timeline, likely impacting the mental and physical well-being of multiple generations of [Louis Bull Tribe] citizens,” they said.

With a file from Niall McGee

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