Former Fernie mayor Randal Macnair speaks at an event hosted by What Matters In Our Valley April 21 at the Della Herman Theatre on Telkwa Coal’s Tenas project. (Tom Roper photo)

Former Fernie mayor Randal Macnair speaks at an event hosted by What Matters In Our Valley April 21 at the Della Herman Theatre on Telkwa Coal’s Tenas project. (Tom Roper photo)

Is Telkwa Coal worth the risk?: Former Fernie mayor

Randal Macnair spoke at an event in Smithers hosted by local environmental group April 21

The benefit might not be worth the cost.

That was the essential message behind a talk April 21 at the Della Herman Theatre by Randal Macnair, former Fernie mayor, sponsored by the local group What Matters in Our Valley on Telkwa Coal’s Tenas project.

Fernie and other communities in the Elk Valley were built by coal and Macnair knows firsthand the issues surrounding coal mines.

“In the Elk Valley, we’ve obviously prospered from coal mining, with its ebbs and flows for 125 years,” he said. “And it’s really now that we’re, we’re recognizing how high the cost has been. With respect to environmental issues, we’re learning more about human health issues. And so there is a cost. And in the case of the Elk Valley, it’s significant.”

Macnair pointed to studies from the Appalachian area in the United States where coal mining has been directly tied to a significant decrease in life expectancy from causes such as COPD and heart disease.

“There’s some evidence in the Elk Valley that some of the same negative health impacts are elevated,” he said. “So I’m not going to drive to conclusions from that, but we ask that question and we need to do the research before we move ahead and make these kinds of decisions.”


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Macnair noted it is a moot point to try to answer the question of whether the benefit was worth the cost for Fernie in retrospect because the town would not exist without coal mining. He also acknowledged that people in the past were focussed on economic prosperity and would not have even known what other questions to ask, but said the situation today is much different.

“Even when we were making coal mining decisions 25 years ago, we looked at it like a 50- or 60-year horizon,” he said. “I think 25 years ago that was realistic. But, the reality is now that steelmaking, the use of coal in steelmaking, contributes eight per cent of global emissions.

“And so, industry and governments are working feverishly to find new solutions to make steel, because you can make steel without coal. And 20 years ago, that was a bit of a pipe dream.”

Now, he thinks the use of mettalurgical coal for steelmaking will be discontinued in 20-25 years, raising the question of whether it is a good time to be developing new mines.

“So, for Fernie, we will have got a run of maybe 150 years of benefit with very high levels of environmental degradation,” he said. “But if you’re jumping into the sunset of an industry, that actually makes the cost much higher because the benefits are not as long as the environmental impacts in Fernie and Telkwa, wherever you build a mine like this, the environmental impacts will exist for millennia.”

Mark Gray, the CEO of Telkwa Coal, said he tried to tune into the live feed of the event, but experienced technical difficulties. From what he saw, though, he said he thought Macnair was very reasonable and the concept of the meeting was good.

“For me, though, you just can’t compare Elk Valley (EV) to Tenas,” he said. “Elk Valley (and Tumbler Ridge for that matter) are chalk and cheese (apples and oranges) to Tenas and I think it is misleading to do so without at least acknowledging that point.”

He noted the four mines in the Elk Valley produce more than 25 million tonnes per year, while Tenas is proposed to produce only 750,000 tonnes. Furthermore, he said, the environmental regulations that Telkwa Coal faces did not exist when the EV mines were built.

“In the day, EV waste rock was pushed off the side of mountain tops direct into the waterways, with trace elements releasing directly into the catchment — that’s when the damage was really done,” he said. “Those practices have gone and today mines contain that material and test the trace elements levels which are discharged into the environment at levels imposed by B.C. government.”

Gray also countered the argument that metallurgical coal is a sunset industry.

“Bigger picture, decarbonized steel is real but it will not replace blast furnace steel, on that I have no doubt, and it is many decades away from having a meaningful part to play in a 9Btpa (nine billion tonnes per annum) steel industry that is growing.”

He points to the industrialization of China, India and Africa as roadblocks to doing away with the need for coking coal.

“Wrongly or rightly, third world countries, and most relevant China and India, are focussed on industrialization (and Africa will follow),” he said.

“Much like the Industrial Revolution, that is driven by power, steel and cement, all of which consumes coal. It comes as no surprise at COP26 that both China and India, at the 11th hour, changed the language in the resolution to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2070, to ‘phase down’ rather than ‘phase out’. That was telling.”

Macnair declined to say whether he thought residents of the Bulkley Valley should say no to Telkwa Coal, saying it is not his place to do so, but did relate the question back to Fernie.

“If it was this situation in my community, I can say with some certainty that I would say no, this is not how I would see our future.”

He noted areas such as the Elk and Bulkley Valleys are now drawing lifestyle migrants, who are bringing economic diversification such as knowledge-based industries and smaller businesses.

“So, it’s saying in the Bulkley Valley’s situation, there’s probably other ways and other opportunities that are going to be far more beneficial and less detrimental as the years go by,” he said. “So that’s how I would look at it, if I was a leader in this community.”

Gray downplayed the risk saying he has faith in B.C.’s environmental assessment process and Telkwa Coal can safely be part of the economic mix.

“I believe (the EA process) is objective and science-focussed and the message I receive from the vast majority of people I have met in the valley over the last five years is: if the science stacks up, then they support development, that’s any development, not just coal mining. And Wet’suwet’en take the same approach. They are not opposed to the development of natural resources.”

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