By Sally MacDonald
Cranbrook Daily Staff
The federal government has announced its plan to sell two pieces of coal-rich land in the Elk Valley.
The Dominion Coal Blocks, known locally as Lot 73 and Lot 82, are large parcels of land east of Fernie that have belonged to the Government of Canada since 1905.
But last month, Natural Resources Canada announced its plans to sell the properties.
“When I got to Ottawa in 2011, it was one of my first projects, to see if we could divest of the coal blocks because they are of no value to the federal government from the perspective of natural extraction,” said Kootenay Columbia MP David Wilks. “The only way it is going to work is for companies to be able to bid on them and hopefully obtain the coal that is in them.”
The Dominion Coal Blocks were acquired by the federal government in 1905 as part of an agreement between the Canadian government and the railway companies that established the Crowsnest Pass rail route.
“The federal government has owned the land since that time and over the years they have come to realize that it does have potential value for natural resource extraction. With them owning it, they are not in the business of doing natural resource extraction,” said MP Wilks.
Lot 73 is a 2,000 hectare parcel located east of Fernie, next to Teck’s Coal Mountain operations.
“(Lot 73) does make sense for (Teck) because it’s between Coal Mountain and Martin Wheeler – it’s kind of plopped in between there, so they would probably have an interest in Lot 73,” explained Wilks.
Much larger, Lot 82 covers 18,000 hectares further south of Lot 73, between the Elk River and Flathead River watersheds.
Some of Lot 82 falls inside the contentious Flathead Valley. Environmental groups have long called for protection of the Flathead, saying it is important wilderness for water quality and wildlife populations.
In 2010, the B.C. and Canadian governments signed an agreement with the state of Montana and the United States government to protect the Flathead, which is adjacent to the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a designated World Heritage Site.
In November 2011, the B.C. government passed the Flathead Watershed Conservation Act, which bans mining and oil and gas activity in the Flathead.
According to MP Wilks, the portion of Lot 82 that lies in the Flathead will not be part of the sale of the Coal Blocks.
“Lot 82 has been subdivided so that the part of Lot 82 that drains into the Flathead is protected and cannot be mined,” said Wilks.
But environmental groups continue to work for a national park in the Flathead.
“While details around the planned sale are not yet clear, we are encouraged that the federal government has confirmed that portions of the coal blocks overlapping with the Flathead River watershed will not be included in the sale, and that discussions with the province are under way to ensure the protection of the entire watershed from development,” said John Bergenske, Wildsight.
“The Dominion Coal Block lands in the Flathead are critical for the integrity of the watershed as a whole. Although this announcement is promising, we need these areas to be legally protected under the existing ban on mining and energy development,” said Peter Wood of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
“We remain concerned that coal extraction adjacent to the Flathead will jeopardize connectivity in the longest remaining wildlife corridor on continent,” said Wendy Francis, Yukon to Yellowstone Conservation Initiative.
Now that the government of Canada has announced its plans to divest the Dominion Coal Blocks, it has set the process in motion.
“It was certainly a challenge for the federal government to deal with all of the bureaucracy that comes along with it but I’m glad to see they got through it,” said MP Wilks.
The government is engaged in consultation with the Ktunaxa, the B.C. government and other key stakeholders. Then mining companies will have the opportunity to bid on pieces of the land.
Wilks said the sale will benefit the East Kootenay, as communities will be able to collect mining tax from the operations.
“When a mining company invests in natural resource extraction, they are subject to Class 4 taxation, which allows for a municipality to tax the said company for the extraction. That is already established,” he said.