LETHBRIDGE, ALTA. -- As a month-long online review hearing on a proposed $800-million coal mine was getting underway, landowners and conservation groups urged Albertans not to get lured by the promise of short-term jobs.

“Having whole landscapes stripped open will be a slow moving natural disaster,” said Dr. Andrea Hull, spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

She said CAPE Alberta is strongly opposed to open pit coal mining on the eastern slopes due to the significant impact it will have on the well being of Albertans.

Dr. Hull said the group is concerned about building a coal mine at the headwaters of the Oldman and North Saskatchewan rivers.

“Effectively this could threaten the drinking water for over a million Albertans," Hull said, "particularly in Lethbridge and Edmonton.”

Dr. Hull pointed to selenium pollution from coal mines in neighbouring British Columbia as examples of horrific contamination that continues to cause major downstream effects on fish and drinking water, despite spending $600-million to try and address the concerns.

“There are better solutions to finding long-term economic prosperity which don’t involve sacrificing the health of our children.”

Regulatory process

During opening remarks a spokesperson for Benga Mining Limited described the regulatory process established for the project as one of the most comprehensive to date for a coal mine proposed in Canada.

Gary Houston, Vice-President External Relations for Benga Mining told the review panel the company has engaged public stakeholders “early, often and constructively” since initiating its public engagement for the project in early 2013.

The steel making coal mine would be located seven kilometers north of Blairmore. Half of the project would be built on private lands purchased by Benga Mining Ltd., a Calgary-based subsidiary of Australian mining company Riversdale Resources. The rest of the 1,520 hectare mine would be on provincial crown lands.

“At full production, Grassy Mountain will be one of the largest single sites for sources of steel making coal to be developed in the past few decades using modern mining technology,” said Houston.

In addition to 500 construction jobs and almost 400 ongoing mining jobs over the 23 year lifespan of the mine, the company said annual property taxes would amount to $1.5-million to the Municipal District of Ranchland and the Municipality of the Crowsnest Pass.

Royalties and tax revenues to the federal and provincial governments are estimated to be around $1.7 billion.

“The companies line is don’t worry be happy,” said Ian Urquart with the Alberta Wilderness Association. “Instead we should worry, we should be unhappy about what this project promises to bring to the Crowsnest Pass for the quarter century and beyond.”

Environmental impact unproven

Conservation groups said in the coming days, their water experts will argue the company's Environmental Impact Assessment plans are unproven, unsuitable, theoretical, and overly optimistic.

“Should Benga be allowed to decapitate Grassy Mountain? AWA’s firm answer to this is no.”

The Municipality of the Crowsnest Pass told the hearing that it supports the project.

Coal mining

In its submission, the municipality said it was satisfied that if Benga commits to the mitigation measures outlined in its proposal, the project will meet the requirements for approval.

However the municipality did recommend a number of conditions be imposed, including noise mitigation measures, air quality monitoring and highway improvements to accommodate increased traffic.

The municipality is also asking for the creation of an advisory committee to monitor the project and make sure necessary adjustments are completed.