The federal government will step in to conduct an environmental review of any new coal project that could possibly release the contaminant selenium.

The decision, announced Wednesday, will capture any proposals that emerge from the eight steelmaking coal exploration projects in Alberta's Rocky Mountain foothills, said federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

"For those projects that do have the potential to release selenium into waterbodies, I will be designating all such projects going forward for a federal review and assessment," he said.

"I think most Albertans would expect an issue like selenium and its impacts on watercourses and fish to be assessed."

Selenium is common in coal-bearing rocks and is found throughout Alberta's coal beds. In large doses it is toxic to fish and is difficult to manage once it gets into groundwater. It has caused major problems in British Columbia's Elk Valley.

Heather McPherson, the NDP MP who asked the government to review such projects, said she was delighted at the news.

"I was totally giddy," she said Wednesday. "I had to sit down, I was so over-the-moon excited he was going to take that step."

But McPherson said the proof of how serious the Liberals are about protecting the Rockies will come shortly. A federal-provincial assessment panel is expected to deliver its recommendations on the proposed Grassy Mountain coal mine in southern Alberta and Wilkinson's decision is to follow.

"It is a litmus test to see whether or not they're going to put the rubber on the road," she said. "We're not through yet."

Feds to review all #Alberta coal mine projects that could produce selenium contaminants. #abpoli #cdnpoli #coal

Coal mining has been controversial in Alberta for more than a year, since the province's United Conservative government revoked a 1976 policy that protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies from open-pit coal mines. Several First Nations, as well as municipalities and many Albertans, have asked the federal minister to step in.

Environmental groups consider federal reviews to be more rigorous than their provincial counterparts and offer more chances for public input.

Wilkinson said the new policy will apply to any new mine, regardless of size.

He said selenium's effects on fish justify federal involvement.

"It needs to be considered in terms of its effects on fish and fish habitat, which are areas of federal jurisdiction. So it's appropriate for the federal government to say, 'This needs a review.'"

Several coal mining companies active in Alberta have told investors that the federal regulator previously informed them they weren't big enough to trigger its involvement.

But Wilkinson said final decisions on any review aren't made until a company makes a formal proposal.

"It's only at that point you can assess whether it will actually be big enough or have significant enough potential impacts to meet that threshold."

Wilkinson announced the decision in an open letter to McPherson, who asked him in March for a regional environmental assessment of coal mining in the Rockies. She backed up her request with an 18,000-name petition.

She also tabled a bill that would change legislation to bring Ottawa in on any coal mine review.

Wilkinson said he decided against a regional review because they take years to complete.

"Given the pace of potential development in (Alberta), we determined that was not the most appropriate tool."

Federal reviews are conducted under legislated timelines and shouldn't add lengthy approval delays, Wilkinson said. They are also able to consider cumulative effects of multiple developments.

"It's not about saying no to all projects," Wilkinson said. "It's about ensuring we are assessing and thinking about how best to ensure these projects are done in an environmentally sustainable way."

Brad Johnston, chief development officer for Cabin Ridge Coal, which hopes to develop a mine in the foothills, said the federal announcement adds to Canada's robust regulatory process.

"We appreciate the clarity Minister Wilkinson’s statement brings and think this should provide extra assurance to Albertans that proposed metallurgical coal mines are subject to a high standard of regulatory review," he said in a statement.

"We believe open and transparent engagement and regulatory processes are fundamental."

Last week, Wilkinson released a policy on coal for power generation that all but shut the door on the new mines. Thermal coal is the world's largest source of greenhouse gases.

The federal government is also preparing new regulations for coal mine effluent, including selenium. Wilkinson said those are likely coming in the fall.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2021.

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