In building the Michel Coal project in B.C.’s southeast, North Coal is looking ahead to the day the mining ends
B.C.’s Elk Valley has a long history of mining, the southeastern area of the province being one of the world’s richest in coal used to make steel. As North Coal Limited explores the area’s Crowsnest coalfield, the Sparwood-based emerging Steel Making Coal producer is starting out with two crucial considerations: reclamation and closure.
In other words, as it sets out plans for the proposed Michel Coal Project, North Coal is first ensuring that the land will be restored to a natural, functioning state once the mine closes approximately 25 - 30 years from now. It’s a progressive approach that minimizes environmental impacts, and strives to keep the ecosystem healthy throughout the mines entire lifespan.
“In preparing for mining, we must consider closure from the very beginning.” says North Coal president John Pumphrey. “We have the opportunity to use new technologies and the best science that’s out there to reclaim as we go.”
“Progressive reclamation, which means reclaiming disturbed lands once work is completed, assists in managing for air, water and wildlife habitat maintenance and protection,” he adds. “Based on past experience, we know what works and we know how to do better.”
The Michel Coal project lies within the traditional territories of the Ktunaxa First Nation and includes the Loop Ridge and Michel Head deposits. Ultimately, the goal of closure and reclamation is to return the land as a place where people can hunt, fish, trap and gather. North Coal developed this objective through engagement with land users and the Ktunaxa Nation Council.
A new model for development
In taking a rigorous environmental approach to mining, North Coal is doing things differently, having paused the regulatory process to allow sufficient time to explore its 7,000-hectare licence area (with a disturbance area of 1,400 hectares), collect baseline data and optimize mine design. Its project description for the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency features findings of environmental studies and input from the Ktunaxa Nation, scientists, engineers, applicable regulators, community members and others, all for a mine design that minimizes landscape alteration and leaves a smaller environmental footprint.
Geotechnical engineer Mike O’Kane of O’Kane Consultants, explains that North Coal is taking an innovative approach to the construction of the mine rock storage facilities, expanding on geotechnical stability. By building it from the bottom up with thinner layers, the structure will be more air-tight than many conventional mines.
“That allows us to manage the amount of gas—the amount of oxygen—that can move within the mine rock stockpile,” O’Kane says. “It allows us to better manage gas transport and therefore we have reduction of potential adverse impact.” North Coal is equally committed to thorough and thoughtful care of the site’s natural environment. Leigh Anne Isaac, senior wildlife biologist with VAST Resource Solutions, is terrestrial lead for the project’s environmental assessment portion. She has done acoustic surveys for bats, badger inventory and habitat assessment, large wildlife habitat suitability mapping and more to ensure that the environmental assessment is rigorous and well informed, and that the project can proceed with minimal impact to wildlife. The difference she sees with North Coal is a “deep sense of doing the right thing.”
“They’re collecting rigorous long-term baseline information to inform the work that they’re doing, and really taking innovative approaches to design by marrying design with environmental considerations,” Isaac says. “In my experience, projects can be further along in the design process, then environmental considerations happen after that. With this project, the two very much occur simultaneously. And it’s because of that commitment of doing things in the right way, in an environmentally sensitive way.”
Using traditional knowledge
Collaboration with Indigenous people for reclamation and closure is at the project’s core. Andrew Baisely, senior geoscientist with O’Kane Consultants, says the team turned to the Ktunaxa First Nation for its traditional knowledge to inform mine design and reclamation plans. “It’s really important work because it’s the legacy of mining,” Baisley says. “In order to continue mining, we have to show we can do better than what we’ve done in the past. To return the land to something that’s useful and desirable for communities is really important from a social point of view and environmental point of view as well.”
Ultimately, communities are at the very heart of North Coal’s work, driving decisions to help produce coal for steel—which is used all over the world, not only for buildings such as hospitals and schools but also in green and renewable technology. The company expects to provide 350 to 400 jobs during construction and 250 to 300 jobs during operations. Those aren’t just numbers to North Coal, but family members.
“We all live and work and play in this area,” Pumphrey says. “It’s important to our families that we do better. We want to leave a positive legacy for this community.”