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Battle lines drawn in Canada over open-pit mine near national park

March 24, 1997

HINTON, Alberta (AP) _ If the Cardinal River coal company wanted attention, it chose an ideal site for its new open-pit mine: a scenic mountain ridge just outside one of the world’s most beautiful parks.

The proposed mine near the northern edge of Jasper National Park is the focus of a heated legal and public-relations battle pitting the company and the people of nearby Hinton against environmental groups across Canada and the United States.

The company, whose 28-year-old mine near Hinton will soon run out of coal, is promising to use state-of-the-art reclamation techniques after mining the new site, known as Cheviot. And Hinton residents say they face economic disaster if the mine is blocked.

Environmentalists counter that the mine would disrupt wildlife corridors in and out of Jasper and destroy a pristine Rocky Mountain habitat of grizzly bears, wolves, harlequin duck and bull trout.

``This little jewel _ they’re going to wreck it,″ said Jennifer Klimek, lawyer for a coalition of environmental groups. ``It doesn’t matter how good the reclamation plan is, it’s not going to be the same after they’re done.″

The Cheviot site stretches for 14 miles along the northern edge of Jasper. At the closest point, the mine would be less than two miles from Jasper, which the United Nations lists as a ``world heritage site.″

Pros and cons of the mine were debated during emotional hearings in January and February by a government panel that will decide in the next few months whether to give the go-ahead.

The mine’s supporters are guardedly optimistic. Both sides predict a protest campaign if the mine is approved.

One environmentalist, Michael Sawyer, claimed he received death threats while in Hinton.

The deputy mayor, Piet Steen, fears trouble if protesters arrive from distant places to oppose the mine.

``You may end up with confrontation,″ said Steen, owner of a shop that sells health food and Christian books. ``People here make their livelihood at the mine.″

He says the town’s 9,800 people want environmental rules adhered to in mining the coal, but are virtually unanimous in supporting the mine. Shop windows throughout town bear posters declaring, ``We Support Cheviot.″

Plans for a new police station and junior high school are on hold awaiting a decision on the mine. Town officials say disapproval would mean a loss of more than 600 jobs and a collapse of real estate prices.

Cardinal River Coals, a joint venture of Alberta-based Luscar Ltd. and Consolidation Coal Co. of Pittsburgh, wants the new mine running by 1999 so it can keep serving customers supplied by the existing Luscar mine. Within four years, Luscar is due to run out of high-grade coal sold to steel mills in Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Elizabeth May, head of the Sierra Club of Canada, said the U.S. branch of the organization believes the Cheviot proposal undermines environmental-protection provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

``We more than welcome the involvement of any U.S. group,″ she said. ``Sometimes that’s the only way to get Canadians to pay attention. The environmental movement is much weaker here.″

Dan Seligman, a Washington-based Sierra Club expert on trade issues, said Cheviot could be an embarrassment to President Clinton if he tries to cite NAFTA as an environmental success.

``If we have a situation where Canada can attract foreign investment by destroying the environment, then we have a fundamental problem with the trade agreement,″ he said in a telephone interview.

Fred Munn, director of the $175 million Cheviot project, is irked at the criticism.

``It’s an insult to Albertans to think we are some Third World country where U.S. environmental standards are being violated,″ he said. ``At the end of the day, we think we’ll actually make it better.″

The site’s coal reserves are estimated at 65 million tons, which would be mined over 20 years from a series of huge pits gouged out of mountainsides by giant electric shovels.

Eventually, the pits would be refilled with rock and covered with topsoil, or turned into trout-stocked lakes to replace creeks. The company plans to recreate cliff-like terrain favored by big-horn sheep.

Environmentalists want Cardinal River to find another mine site, saying the Cheviot area would be better used for ``eco-tourism.″

But miners say they would need two tourism jobs to equal their current base pay of $40,000 a year.

``I don’t want to flip burgers or sell souvenirs to Japanese tourists,″ said Al Watson, who left Alberta’s environment agency to oversee reclamation work at the Luscar mine.

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