Vista thermal coal expansion will be subject to federal review after all

The Vista thermal coal mine near Hinton, Alta. Credit: Bighorn Mining.

Federal minister of environment and climate change Jonathan Wilkinson has reversed a 2019 decision and determined that the expansion and underground development of Coalspur Mines‘ Vista thermal coal mine will be subjected to a federal review. The mine is located near Hinton, Alta.

A coal mine is required to undergo federal environmental review if it seeks to expand by 50% and/or produce upwards of 5,000 tonnes of coal daily. In 2020, Wilkinson decided the Vista expansion was close enough to that benchmark that it did, indeed, need to be reviewed by a joint federal-provincial board.

That decision was challenged in federal court by Coalspur and the Ermineskin First Nation. The court met with 44 Indigenous bands, including Ermineskin, who support the expansion for economic reasons. Ermineskin argued that Wilkinson’s decision violated its treaty rights because he failed to consult them. (Coalspur’s suit was thrown out after the Ermineskin ruling.)

“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.

He continues to insist that federal review is needed because of the size of the expansion and its potential threats to areas of federal jurisdiction such as waterways and biological habitat. Moreover, a review is necessary to engage with other Indigenous communities who oppose the expansion.

The Vista expansion project is currently undergoing a provincial environmental assessment by the Alberta Energy Regulator. The mine began production in 2019, producing 6.5 million tonnes of thermal coal annually for export to customers in Asia. The planned expansion would make it the largest thermal coal mine in North America.

Coalspur Mines applied for creditor protection in June, and the mine is currently being operated by Bighorn Mining, an affiliate of Cutlass Collieries and the U.S.-based Cline Group.

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