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Posted: January 24, 2021

You don’t want to live next door to a coal mine

By David B Savage

Op-Ed Commentary

Imagine you have worked hard all your life and have a beautiful 160 acres of treed land with a creek and a cabin. You go there as much as possible for the nature, the solitude, the community and the wonder. You bring family and friends up to your mountain cabin and plan to spend the majority of your days there in the coming years.

And then an Australian coal mining company buys up the lands right next door. You sense your dreams are being killed. You fear the impact of their mountain top removal plan will devastate the land, air, water and the value of your special place.

Mountain top removal for metallurgical coal strip mining on Grassy Mountain on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, near Blairmore, Alberta, is finally capturing public interest and debate.

In 2015, I was asked to negotiate on behalf of landowners whose quarter section was within the proposed mine boundaries. While I respect the important and complex issues of Benga/ Riversdale’s proposal, I was sickened when I was told the mining representative had told the families, “you better sell to us now. You don’t want to live next door to a coal mine. And we will close the only access road you have to your cabin.”

And the money offered was a fraction of the value to the families and to the company.

I respect natural resource extraction and I and many of my ancestors made their living through mining and oil and natural gas exploration and development. Canada has benefited greatly and continues to.

But there are limits. There are values and processes that Canadians honour that others seem not to.

Over several months in 2015, I developed a relationship with the then president of Riversdale and we negotiated a successful deal for my clients.

Riversdale changed ownership and leadership. The president sold his shares, was replaced and went home to Australia.

I was approached again in mid-2020 by more families with quarter sections immediately beside the Benga/ Riversdale proposed mine. The threats continue. We will cut off all access to your property. The families directed Benga to negotiate with me on all their behalf. There would be separation of communications, negotiations, differing communications. Talk to David. And in the six months, since the families directed Benga to negotiate only through me, the coal company has refused to talk, meet, negotiate, explore alternatives… with me on behalf of the families. Benga believes the regulatory process will get them a win and then they have more power.

Alberta and Canada have world-class regulatory processes. In late 2020, a Joint Review Panel heard the positions, interests, data, research… from the proponent, those for and those against. And after an eight-year proposal and review process to date, the Joint Review Panel is expected to make recommendations to Alberta and Ottawa.

Finally, the public has spoken up. There are good arguments for the mountain top removal coal mine to proceed. There are critically important environmental, social and economic reasons to not permit any such strip mine in this important ecosystem. Representations from my clients, their regulatory lawyers, community members, environmentalists, economists… have revealed significant problems in the plans of Benga/ Riversdale. The Joint Review Panel, Alberta and Ottawa will take them all into consideration in the coming months.

Across the border in the Elk Valley of British Columbia, Teck has faced many of the same challenging environmental issues that the recent Alberta coal mining proposals do. Teck dedicates itself to sustainability in many ways. I admire many of their initiatives and processes. Yet, even Teck has been unable to successfully address the damage caused by selenium leakage into the Elk River that flows through the Elk Valley and into Montana. The Benga submissions have not addressed these environmental contamination challenges adequately.

My role is not to take a harsh position. These are very complex issues. We have processes for people and organizations to be heard. At the end of the day, it will always be a political decision. Remember this. Think of the Northern Gateway pipeline that faced many years of examinations, reviews, hearings… and the National Energy Board approved it subject to 108 conditions. Then Ottawa unilaterally killed Northern Gateway for its own reasons.

My role is to negotiate on behalf of hard-working families that are my clients to get to an outcome that respects and protects their interests. And that will allow them, their families and business to be healthy and succeed in a framework that respects and protects our environment, our society and our economy.

The objective of this piece is to shed a little more light on the Grassy Mountain Coal Strip Mine proposal from a perspective you likely have not heard.

My experience is that Benga/ Riversdale have in many ways over the past years bullied and ignored the people who live, ranch, and recreate right across the fence line for the mine.

My experience is that most Canadian natural resource companies understand and respect their neighbours and our value for a sustainable life.

Refusal to talk. Threats to close access. Hardline positions. These are not conducive to being a good neighbour. Alberta and Canada must consider whether they want that business personality removing mountain tops in a critical watershed and wildlife migratory region.

If the Grassy Mountain Mining proposal is rejected clearly, there will be an ongoing need to support the economy, community and environment in the region. If the proposal is approved subject to many conditions, the tension, battles and harm will escalate.

These are not unsolvable issues. But to get to successful outcomes the parties must come to the table to assess, address, collaborate, innovate and commit to better outcomes for our shared future.

My clients deserve better. Albertans deserve better. Canadians deserve better. And nature deserves better. Let’s do better together. Let’s Talk.

– David B Savage is an East Kootenay-based author and owner of Savage Management Ltd.

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