Wildsight seeks clarification for coal blocks

MP says environmental group is wrong with Flathead claims

A map of the Flathead area showing the coal blocks in question.

A map of the Flathead area showing the coal blocks in question.

MP for Kootenay-Columbia David Wilks is speaking out after Wildsight requested protection for a block of land from mining, a move Wilks says was part of a sweeping mining ban put in place a year ago.

The land in question, Lot 82, lies to the east of Fernie and runs into the Flathead Valley Watershed in a southwest diagonal.

In November 2011 the B.C. government passed the Flathead Watershed Conservation Act that banned mining and oil and gas activity in the southern Flathead region. A 6,290-hectare portion of that protected land lies within the Dominion Coal Block Lot 82 as well as the provincial protection area, making up about one third of the entire block.

John Bergenske, executive director of Wildsight, said the group became concerned that the area may not be protected when the federal government released detailed topographic maps that showed the coalbed methane resource potential for Lot 82 earlier this year.

“What we were getting is bits and pieces from people,” Bergenske said. “We’ve been looking at the Flathead and we realized that the Dominion Coal Block is in fact an anomaly.”

Wildsight found that the provincial government had no rights to that federally owned land, and believe the ban does not include the portion found within the protection area and the Dominion Coal Block.

“Their jurisdiction is only on the provincial land,” Bergenske said.

Wildsight released a statement on Monday asking the federal government to commit to protecting these federally-owned lands as the provincial government did a year ago.

“The Flathead is not protected from open pit coal mining after all,” Bergenske said in the release. “We’re calling on the federal government to make an immediate public commitment to join the ban on Flathead mining and energy development.”

But Wilks said Wildsight has incorrect information, and the portion of the Dominion Coal Block within the protection area has always been included in the provincial ban, even though the land is federally held.

“They’re wrong,” Wilks said. “They are purporting something that’s false.”

In September, federal environment minister Peter Kent travelled to Cranbrook where he and a group of officials took a helicopter ride into the Flathead Valley to see all that would be protected.

In 2010, then-Premier Gordon Campbell and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer signed a memorandum of understanding to prohibit mining and the development of oil, gas and coal resources throughout the B.C. Flathead. It is adjacent to the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which is also a designated World Heritage Site and a UN Biosphere Reserve.

Wilks said Wildsight has been eyeing the Dominion Coal Blocks for many years, even though the wheels had been set in motion by government to protect the portion found within the Flathead Watershed.

“For a number of years the Dominion Coal Blocks has been a contentious issue for Wildsight,” he said.

Wilks said the protected area has been talked about since he was mayor of Sparwood and a member of the Regional District of East Kootenay.

“Lot 82 has always been a part of that plan and everyone knew that,” Wilks said.

Bergenske said the land within Lot 82 is part of the Flathead River headwaters, which is critical habitat and home to all major carnivores.

“The one third that is within the Flathead is the headwaters of the Flathead River,” he said. “Headwater regions are particularly susceptible (to development).”

Lot 82 lies just to the west of Teck Coal’s Coal Mountain operations. Nic Milligan, manager of community and Aboriginal affairs for Teck, said the company has no interest in the coal in that area, but is in fact looking at expanding their Marten Wheeler operations into Lot 73, which lies south of Sparwood, and east of Hosmer. Operations at Coal Mountain are expected to wind down in the next six to seven years and the company is looking into their next step.

“We have no interest in the Flathead block,” Milligan said. He also said Teck currently has no mineral rights in Lot 73 that lies next to the Martin Wheeler property.

Wilks said Teck was well aware that a portion of Lot 82 was off limits to future expansion when they began exploring other options, and they were fine with the decision.

“As far as I understand, Teck even knew it and Teck agreed,” Wilks said.

As for the rest of Lot 82 outside of the protection area, Wilks said the area also has no proposed development at the moment.

“At this point in time there is no intention to go into Lot 82,” he said. “They (Wildsight) are fear mongering.”

Bergenske said Wildsight is not suggesting there is impending development scheduled for the area.

The Dominion Coal Blocks became federal lands a century ago when the Canadian government offered them as an incentive for the Canadian Pacific Railway to push through the Rockies to the coast. The federal government offered the coal reserves to CPR should they need them at a time when the difference between metallurgical coal and thermal coal was not known.

Thermal coal is used for power generation while metallurgical coal is used in the making of iron and steel. The latter is mined out of the Elk Valley.

The CPR never used the Dominion Coal Blocks, and from 1910 to 1940 much of B.C.’s Crown land was transferred to the provincial government; however, there are no documents on record of the Dominion Coal Blocks ever being taken out of federal jurisdiction. It has since then always been referred to as federal land as the coal mining industry in the Elk Valley boomed.