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Environment minister restores federal assessment of Alberta coal mine

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has reinstated his decision to subject a thermal coal mine expansion in Alberta to a federal review.

If approved, the site near Hinton would become North America's largest thermal coal mine

The existing Vista mine near Hinton, Alta., began shipping coal for export in May 2019. (Bighorn Mining)

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has reinstated his decision to subject a thermal coal mine expansion in Alberta to a federal review after a court ordered him to rethink it.

"Following the reconsideration process, I have determined that the physical activities warrant [federal] designation," Wilkinson said in a statement regarding the proposed Vista expansion project.

Coalspur Mines is seeking to expand its existing surface mine near Hinton in north central Alberta. The expansion would make Vista the largest thermal coal mine in North America. The company also plans an underground test mine on the site.

A federal environmental review is required when a mine expands its footprint by 50 per cent or more, or if it plans to produce more than 5,000 tonnes of coal a day. In the early stages of its development, Vista would come in just under those thresholds and the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada ruled in 2019 that Ottawa wouldn't get involved.

However, in 2020 Wilkinson decided that the footprint was close enough and that production would eventually exceed the level triggering a federal review. He revoked the agency's decision and ordered a joint federal-provincial process, considered to be more rigorous than a purely provincial assessment.

A court battle 

That decision was challenged in Federal Court by Coalspur and Ermineskin First Nation.

Ermineskin supports the project for its economic benefits and argued its treaty rights were violated when Wilkinson failed to consult with them. Court agreed with Ermineskin and ordered Wilkinson to reconsider.

Since then, the agency has met with 44 First Nations, including Ermineskin.

"The agency held a series of meetings to ensure it fully understood Ermineskin's perspectives and concerns with regard to the physical activities as well as the context surrounding the previous designation requests and processes," said a statement from agency spokesman Stephane Perrault.

"The agency documented and included the feedback from Indigenous groups consulted during the reconsideration process to ensure their views were included in the analysis provided to the minister."

A spokesman for Ermineskin was not immediately available to comment.

Coalspur's application to Federal Court was thrown out after the Ermineskin ruling. A spokesperson for the company wasn't immediately available to say if that application would be refiled.

Wilkinson's latest decision is based on reasons similar to those he initially cited.

He said Ottawa's involvement is justified by the size of the planned expansion and its potential threats to areas of federal jurisdiction, such as contamination of waterways and habitat loss for species at risk. He also said the expansion would affect the treaty rights of other First Nations who oppose the project.

Wilkinson has also brought in a policy that states thermal coal mines are inconsistent with Ottawa's plans to fight climate change. Thermal coal, used to generate electricity, is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases worldwide.

Unlike some other proposed coal projects in Alberta, the Vista mine produces thermal coal, which is burned to generate electricity. Most of it is sold overseas.

Meanwhile, both Alberta and Canadian governments have committed to stop burning coal to generate electricity by 2030.

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