Murray River Coal gets environmental certificate

Trent Ernst, Editor


The Murray River Coal Project has cleared the latest hurdle in its progress from dream to reality.

On October 1, Environment Minister Mary Polak and Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett issued an environmental assessment certificate (EAC) to HD Mining International Ltd. for the Murray River Coal project.

The project has been in the review process since the Pre-Application Start date back in June 2012.

While there is no timeline during the Pre-Application stage, the government has 180 days to review the application process once it is submitted, which began on December 3 of last year.

On May 15, the 180 day period was extended an additional 30 days to
July 1, and another extension on June 30 to August 18 to allow additional time to “incorporate the findings of the review in the EAO Assessment Report; and provide HD Mining International, the working group, and First Nations with the opportunity to review and comment on the documentation developed by EAO,” wrote Project Assessment Manager Michael Peterson.

Once the application was reviewed, it was submitted to the ministers for a 45 day review, which they completed a day early.

The environmental assessment considered over 40 valued components related to potential adverse environmental, economic, health, heritage and social effects of the Murray River Project, as well as potential adverse effects of the Murray River Project on First Nations Treaty 8 Rights, writes Kevin Jardine, Executive Director of the Environmental Officer (EAO).

In all, there were 19 “valued components with residual adverse effects” identified by the EAO, which are broken down into  five key project specific considerations that the ministers took into consideration in making the decision. These effects would result from “dewatering of the underground mine during operations; the post-closure flooding of the mine (which exposes groundwater to the rock in the mine-out tunnels); the collapsing of the mined-out tunnels which is predicted to cause subsidence (sinking) of the overlying ground surface; and the surface storage of coarse coal rejects.”

The EAO also identified four potential significant adverse cumulative effects on the environment, which are not directly caused by the Murray River Mine, but by it and other projects that have not yet been built.

Once built, the Murray River Mine would be one of the largest underground coal mines in Canada and the first mine in BC to use longwall mining.

The EAO identified potential effects on groundwater as “a critical aspect of this environmental assessment, because of the potential for cascading effects on other aquatic and terrestrial valued components.”

According to the Ministers, during operations, de-watering of the underground mine would lower the groundwater table and reduce baseflow discharges to local streams. The quality of groundwater in contact with the mine workings would be reduced, and the contact groundwater would be pumped to water management structures on the surface and released into the Murray River in accordance with permit requirements.

At closure, the mine would be allowed to flood, and the water table and its contributions to local streams would rebound. The groundwater in the flooded mine would slowly migrate to the Murray River. However, through dilution and attenuation, water quality in the Murray River is not predicted to be an issue.

“We understand that there is uncertainty regarding the characterization of potential effects on groundwater due to the limited number of deep groundwater wells and the reliance on models that were based on the limited baseline information,” wrote the ministers. “We also understand that permitting will require further groundwater drilling and resource definition as well as monitoring, which will reduce the uncertainty and assist in the management of predicted effects.”

However, the EAO ultimately concluded the Project would have “residual adverse effects on groundwater, but that these effects would not be significant because the physical extent of the groundwater impacts would be limited.”

The project would also have potential effects on the aquatic environment due to groundwater drawdown, surface subsidence, operational pumping of groundwater from the mine to the surface, and the surface infrastructure.

Again, though, the EAO concluded the residual adverse effects would not be significant for a number of reasons, including “the physical extent of the groundwater drawdown would be limited to the zone of groundwater influence from subsidence; and the effects would be effectively mitigated by the proposed Certificate conditions.”

However, the EAO has concluded that the Project “would likely contribute to significant cumulative adverse effects on wetlands in the region, taking into account the predicted cumulative contribution of the Project, the current level of impact on wetlands in the area due to loss and alteration, the low resilience of wetland systems, and that the relatively rare and unique nature of wetland ecosystems are often contain attributes that are not easily replicable.”

Mitigation measures will also reduce the potential residual effects on the terrestrial environment. However, the Project would likely contribute to “significant cumulative adverse effects on forested ecosystems, rare ecosystems, and rare plants and lichens within the region. This takes into account: the predicted cumulative contribution of the Project; the current level of impact in the area due to loss and alteration; the low resilience of rare plants and lichens; and that the relatively unique nature of rare ecosystems often contain attributes that are not easily replicable.”

Finally, the EAO says the mine might have potential impacts on adjacent tenure holders. Elements of the project infrastructure would be within the inundation zone of the Quintette Coal Mine Plant Tailings Dam, which could potentially result in additional costs for Teck Coal. However, conditions attached to the Certificate, as well as future permitting requirements will effective address the effects of the project on adjacent tenure holders “such that significant adverse effects will not occur.”

There are 24 conditions that are attached to the certificate, ranging from retaining the services of an Independent Environmental Monitor to participate in the Murray River Aquatic Cumulative Effects Assessment Framework Steering Committee to developing a noise reduction plan and a heritage management plan.

HD Spokesperson Blair Lekstrom says a lot of work went into the application, and he’s glad that the certificate has been issued. “The granting of the BC EAC was very good news,” he says. “When we were presenting this, we had 12 three inch binders full of paper. It was a big project.”

But, he says, most EAC come with conditions attached, and this is no exception. “We still have lots of work to do to meet those conditions. The EAO makes sure that these conditions are attached so that they don’t get lost: water management, wildlife management. It’s pretty standard stuff. A great deal of work in meeting these conditions, and we’re very happy with the decision.”

And while this is one of the biggest steps in the project becoming a reality, HD still has a couple major hurdles to get over.

While they have been granted a provincial Environmental Certificate, the project is still under review by the Federal Government.

When the project clears that hurdle, it still needs its Mines Act Permit. This is anywhere from a three month to 12 month process, says Lekstrom. Once all this is completed, he says, then the company will make its decision whether to proceed. “The company has invested 150 million to date in the bulk sample,” says Lekstrom. “We are committed to this mine, and I am optimistic it will be a go.”

Still, coal prices show no signs of recovery, and the company isn’t making any promises. If they do go ahead, Lekstrom estimates that construction of the actual mine won’t start until early 2017.

Lekstrom says the company is still on track to have its bulk sample done by the end of the year, though they have yet to hit the actual coal seam.

Once they do, the company will be extracting a minimal amount—about 50 tonnes—and then putting the site into care and maintenance mode until the mines act permit is issued.

Lekstrom says that, just because the EAC has been issued, the company is not done. “Just because you’ve received it doesn’t mean you don’t stop engaging with people, with First Nations and others.”

Lekstrom says work is also continuing at Monkman Commons. The tent came down last week, and the plan is to move forward on landscaping, internal roadway, lighting. “If possible, we’ll try and shape the ground before the end of the year and maybe even bring in topsoil, but we’re really tied to the weather.”