Coal mining revival in Crowsnest Pass eyed by Australian company

The Crowsnest Pass in southern Alberta hasn't seen a working coal mine in decades but an Australian company has a plan to change that.

Southern Alberta's Grassy Mountain could produce up to 4M tonnes a year and employ hundreds

Steve Mallyon, managing director of Australian-based Riversdale Resources, says his company's planned open pit coal mine in the Crowsnest Pass could produce two to four million tonnes of coal a year over 28 years. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

The Crowsnest Pass in southern Alberta hasn't seen a working coal mine in decades but an Australian company has a plan to change that.

Sydney-based Riversdale Resources has spent almost $50 million acquiring coal properties in Crowsnest Pass, including the Grassy Mountain property north of Blairmore​. 

Managing director Steve Mallyon says the company is working on a feasibility study for an open pit mine on the mountain, which would be roughly six kilometres long and two kilometres wide.

"It feels daunting at times," said Mallyon as he surveyed the remnants of wood coal chutes and rusty machinery left from when the mountain was last mined in the 1950s.

The "Big Show" formation on Grassy Mountain features a gleaming, dense cluster of coal on the southeast face. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

But Mallyon said he is encouraged by what the company is finding.

"The resource is increasing in size and to some extent in quality, and we're seeing the real potential of Grassy starting to emerge."

Riversdale Resources estimates the mine would produce two to four million tonnes of coal a year over 28 years.

The coking coal would be shipped to Asia for steel-making. 

"There's a half a dozen Australian companies that have set up either here or in the Elk River Valley," said Mallyon.

"I think they come here for that combination of factors which really attracted us to Grassy: good coal quality, good experienced people, but also fantastic logistics, with the rail and the number of ports that are available." 

Coal industry renaissance 

"It'll be a renaissance of this part of the Canadian coal industry and maybe other parts as well," he said.

The company expects to finish its feasibility study by the end of the year, and then it will decide whether to do an environmental assessment and seek mine approvals to go ahead with the project.

Mallyon estimates the mine would employ 1,000 people during construction and 200 once it’s in operation. 

"For a bunch of Aussies coming here, it's been overwhelming. A lot of support. A lot of interest in what we're doing," said Mallyon. 

The prospect of a coal-mining comeback appeals to Crowsnest Pass retiree Neil Pitt.

Old-timer town 

"This is an old-timer town right now, and it would be nice to have some employment for the young people and to keep them here — to revitalize the town," he said. 

In the 2011 Statistics Canada census, 21.5 per cent of the Crowsnest Pass population was aged 65 and over, compared with a national average of 14.8 per cent. 

Environmental groups are worried about the potential impact of the renewed interest in coal exploration in the Crowsnest Pass area. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

The population of Crowsnest Pass is 5,565. It shrank by 3.2 per cent from 2006 to 2011, according to the census.

"Currently we have no major industries in the community," said Crowsnest Coun. Shar Lazzarotto.

The town could use the well-paying jobs a mine would bring, she said.

“A lot of our residents work in the coal mines on the B.C. side."

"I really haven't heard any naysayers," said Jessica Atkinson, co-owner Stone's Throw Cafe, in neighbouring Blairmore.

"It's good news. It's good news for the schools. It's good news for the businesses that are here." 

But some residents do have concerns about reviving the town's coal mining reputation. 

"I'm a little bit concerned about the tourism aspect versus the coal mining," said John Redekopp, a realtor and the founder of a Crowsnest Pass mountain biking group.

"But I'm hoping that we can see 'coal mine' and 'tourism' in the same sentence and make it work," he said. "I mean, Fernie has pulled it off."

Environmental worries 

However, conservation groups aren't welcoming the idea of an open pit mine on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. 

"Anywhere in those headwater areas we're always concerned with certain kinds of development, especially that kind of coal mining development that creates huge scars on the landscape [and] completely changes the topography of the area," said Brittany Verbeek, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

It's not just the Grassy Mountain project that concerns Verbeek, but the renewed interest in coal exploration in the region overall.

Canadian coking coal company Altitude Resources is spending $1.5 million this year to drill in the area. 

"Other companies are looking to expand north up into that Livingston area, and that's a really big concern of ours. If they open up one, how many more are they going to open up?" said Verbeek. 

"Environmentally there will always be an impact. I think holistically we've got to look at the total picture of Grassy Mountain," said Mallyon.

"There's a need for an economic stimulus in this part of the world." 

Riversdale Resources is already doing baseline studies on wildlife and air and water quality, Mallyon said.

If the studies and permitting go according to plan, Riversdale Resources expects to open the mine in late 2018.