December 9th, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 48
Riverdale comments on threatened trout species issue
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Riversdale Resources Grassy Moutain project.
Pass Herald Reporter
The federal government has declared the creeks near the proposed Grassy Mountain project critical habitat for Alberta’s threatened population of westslope cutthroat trout.

It is now illegal to damage the streams and surrounding riparian areas where Riversdale Resources is proposing to build a terraced coal mine but the company said the protection order would not affect the project.
“Protection of [the trout’s] critical habitat has always been part of our project planning,” said Cal Clark, Riversdale's sustainable development manager. “Our project design and proposed mitigations consider the sensitivities of its habitat in Gold and Blairmore Creeks and include measures that will support the federal recovery plan for the species in these watersheds.”

The critical habitat order, published by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in a Nov. 20 issue of the Canada Gazette, prohibits the destruction of any part of the trout’s habitat. The prohibition pertains to any recreational, commercial or industrial use that could harm trout streams in the southern Alberta foothills.
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The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) celebrated the decision.

“We are very pleased with the announcement,” said Brittany Verbeek, the association’s conservation director. “It’s a really important and legally required step towards the protection and recovery of westslope cutthroat trout.”

The order was supposed to have been declared more than a year ago under the previous Conservative government. The minister didn’t issue it and the AWA had been trying to force the federal government to issue the critical habitat order through litigation but the association said it would drop the lawsuit.

“We will be filing a discontinuance of the federal court proceedings,” said Verbeek.

Genetically pure cutthroat trout occupy only a small fraction of their original range and exist as relatively small, disconnected populations. They are largely restricted to the Rocky Mountains and foothills in the uppermost reaches of rivers.

Scientists believe the fish now inhabit about five per cent of their original distribution.

Benga Mining, a Riversdale subsidiary, has submitted an application for the Grassy Mountain metallurgic coal mine to federal and provincial energy regulators to move the project into the development phase.

Riversdale purchased the Grassy Mountain site in Aug. 2013. The proposed 12 square kilometre terraced coal mine on the top of Grassy Mountain north of Blairmore would extract 4 million tonnes of coking coal - primarily used to manufacture steel - annually over 25 years.

According to the Aquatic Resources Baseline and Effects Assessment, prepared by Hatfield Consultants and submitted as part of the environmental impact assessment, the project would negatively affect aquatic habitat in the Gold and Blairmore Creek watersheds.

The damage would be caused by the project’s development footprint and changes to the flow regimes of both creeks, said the report.

The project is predicted to impact 5,099 square metres of aquatic habitat, mostly in the Gold Creek watershed, which would see 4,211 square metres of habitat damaged because of reductions in the volume of water.
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Taken together, the Blairmore and Gold Creek watersheds are home to a number of species and contain two of the 51 known remaining populations of westslope cutthroat trout.

The two watersheds account for 11 per cent of total of the Crowsnest River watershed, which contains a third population of westslope cutthroat.

Riversdale’s Conservation and Reclamation Plan said mining activities of the past are already having a negative impact on the local fisheries, especially during high flow events like the spring freshet and heavy rainfalls when old detritus from mines washes into the creeks.

The company has identified nine former mine sites on Riversdale’s Grassy Mountain holdings many of which have not been cleaned up to modern standards.

The EIA and supporting documents outline a number of steps the mine operator would take to adhere to a federal recovery plan for the trout that was finalized in 2014.

The first lines of defense would be three surge ponds that would capture water exposed to waste rock dumps and five sedimentation ponds to hold runoff from the open pit coal mine.

The contaminated water would then be directed back into the open pit and buried in an oxygen free environment where bacteria would eventually break down some of the contaminants.

Other mitigating steps include mining offsets, which means protecting animals and plants in one area to make up for negative impacts in another. The report identified locations in the Gold Creek watershed, including Green Creek, Morin Creek and Caudron Creek, as potential areas to protect. Such protection would “offset” the damage done in other parts of the watersheds.

A program of technical work would need to be done to determine the amount and nature of required offsets, if the project is approved.

Riversdale would also partner with local organizations, including the Crowsnest Conservation Society, to implement a Gold Creek Stewardship Program with the goal of monitoring the stream and reclaiming it at the end of the mine’s life.

But Lorne Fitch, a fisheries biologist, disagreed with Riverdale’s assessment.

“It is the ultimate hubris to suggest one can successfully blast a mountain apart, dump the unwanted rock somewhere where it will not move, build roads that do not erode, never have a diesel fuel spill, or any other contaminant, transport the coal without dropping a fragment and do it in a way that doesn’t impact the water and the fish,” he said. “You cannot separate Gold and Blairmore creeks from their watersheds; whatever happens in the watershed will flow downhill, following the immutable law of gravity. And, whatever engineered devices are installed to “mitigate” issues and separate the streams from mining activity will fail, some sooner than later and some many times.”
December 9th ~ Vol. 85 No. 48
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