Environmental groups want the federal government to investigate construction on an Alberta coal mine expansion for potentially violating federal law that protects endangered fish and their habitat.

Coalspur Mines Ltd. has reportedly started work on the Vista Underground Mine expansion without seeking federal permits necessary under the Fisheries Act and Species at Risk Act, according to a letter sent to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) by Ecojustice on behalf of two local organizations: Keepers of the Water Society and the West Athabasca Watershed Bioregional Society.

The letter, sent Feb. 27, asks the DFO to investigate and, if needed, take enforcement action after Ecojustice learned construction work was underway on Vista’s underground mine expansion near Hinton, Alta.

“DFO has previously confirmed that the underground mine is expected to adversely affect the legally defined critical habitat of endangered Athabasca rainbow trout, as well as the habitat of protected bull trout,” and requires permits, reads the letter.

Currently, the Vista open-pit coal mine produces about six million tonnes of thermal coal per year, according to the company’s 2021 submission to the Impact Assessment Agency. Coalspur is pursuing two expansions to the existing mine. One would expand the current open-pit mine to increase coal production capacity by 4.5 million tonnes. The second proposed expansion is for a small underground mine in the same area to test whether the company could add a larger underground mine to its operations.

Both expansions impact the habitat of Athabasca rainbow trout and bull trout. The letter notes that two sub-watersheds, where the underground mine is located, have large estimated populations of rainbow trout.

“It's time-sensitive,” said Daniel Cheater, staff lawyer at Ecojustice, an environmental law charity. “We're being told that work is starting. It doesn't mean that impacts have happened yet. But I think it's critically important that [the DFO] act as quickly as possible to figure out what's going on.”

The DFO has “been in contact with Coalspur Mines regarding their responsibilities under the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act, however an investigation at the site has not commenced,” the department told Canada’s National Observer in an emailed statement on March 7. “The company is obliged to comply with the acts, and failure to comply may lead to enforcement action,” it said.

Canada’s National Observer attempted to contact Coalspur through multiple channels but did not hear back by the time of publication. This article will be updated to include comment from Coalspur when it becomes available.

Environmental groups want the federal government to investigate construction on an Alberta coal mine expansion for potentially violating federal law that protects endangered fish and their habitat​​​​​​​.

On Jan. 15, Coalspur notified the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) that it started excavation for the underground mine, said AER in an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer.

Because Coalspur’s underground mine expansion has all the necessary provincial permits, Ecojustice suggested the company charged ahead with the underground mine construction without getting a permit under the Fisheries Act or Species at Risk Act, which the DFO said would be necessary in its analysis report. To Ecojustice’s knowledge, “this never occurred as Coalspur did not apply to DFO for authorization.”

The DFO did not say whether Coalspur applied for this authorization.

The federal government originally said it would do an impact assessment for the expansions. But the company argued it wasn’t necessary and the issue went back and forth through the courts for several years.

Now, a recent Supreme Court decision called some parts of the Impact Assessment Act unconstitutional, leaving impact assessments on provincial resource extraction projects in limbo.

Still, Cheater argues the federal government, in this case the DFO, has a duty to ensure compliance with their laws and ensure that the environment is protected.

Coalspur indicated “no effects to fish and fish habitat were anticipated” in the Vista underground mine because it is within the existing operation's footprint and would use existing mitigation and monitoring plans. The Impact Assessment Agency disagreed, saying impacts to fish and fish habitats are likely to result from the underground mine.

Ecojustice’s immediate concern is the local impacts of Vista’s underground mine expansion, but expanding thermal coal production also doesn’t square with some of Canada’s commitments, Cheater pointed out.

In 2021, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced the federal government would no longer approve thermal coal mining projects because of their contribution to the climate crisis. The federal government has also committed to ending thermal coal exports by 2030. Vista currently exports its thermal coal overseas to Asian markets. It started operations in 2019 and has an expected lifetime of 30 years.

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
March 7, 2024, 02:33 pm

This article was updated at 2:33pm ET to add comment from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Keep reading

Time and again we treat coal, oil, and gas projects differently than metal resource projects. Why is there a double standard?