Sturgeon County Sand and Gravel Strip Mining Regulatory Review Denies the County’s Responsibility to Protect the Ecological Viability of the Sturgeon River (just north and west of Edmonton)  

“Reclaimed” Sand and Gravel Strip Mine near Calahoo, northwest of Edmonton

 by Ian Skinner and Mike Northcott, Onoway River Valley8 Conservation Association ( a Working Group of the Edmonton Chapter of the Council of Canadians)

May 25, 2022

On Feb 8, 2000 the Sturgeon County Subdivision and Development Appeal Board stated the following in their decision regarding strip mining: “The Board believes that mining operations within ½ mile of multi-lot subdivisions and 1 mile from the Hamlet of Calahoo would negatively impact the quiet, peaceful residential character of the area… The Board believes this to be an incompatible use within the community that would negatively interfere with the amenities of the neighborhood as well as materially interfere with or affect the use, enjoyment or value of neighboring parcels and on the lack of information on the possible impact of sand and gravel operations on the groundwater.” (Sturgeon County, 2000). The board considered that of one hundred and twenty-eight (128) notices sent out, sixty-nine (69) letters of objection were received. Considering that over 50% of notices were returned against this development, “The Board [was] in the opinion that the neighbors are not supportive of the application.” In this case, the Subdivision Development Appeal Board ultimately denied a permit for a gravel mining operation.

In April 2000, several residents proposed a bylaw amendment, which would have prohibited resource extraction within the Villeneuve Overlay Area (Sturgeon County, 2000). This amendment was not adopted. Instead, Sturgeon County Council placed a temporary moratorium on all development permits for resource extraction within the Villeneuve Overlay Area, and proposed an Area Structure Plan, which would guide future development in the region. Over 20 years later, concerns that were brought forward by residents are still being ignored.

There is no doubt that Alberta should make careful use of its natural resources, especially to supply the province’s own requirements. However, careful use is contradicted when government agencies aggressively promote the extraction of non-renewable resources before integrating environmental protection during the municipal planning and development stage. As a result, the protection of our water, air, and land seems to follow as an afterthought if considered at all. This is demonstrated in the Strategic Alignment Checklist of the ‘Sturgeon County Resource Extraction Regulatory Review final report (2021)’, which recommends that environmental stewardship is “not applicable”.  If the purpose of the municipality is to foster the well-being of the environment, why is environmental legislation section 60 of the Municipal Government Act omitted at the earliest stages of land use planning and development? 

          Reports published by the Environment Conservation Authority on December 1971 described the ‘fairly obvious’ significant negative impacts of strip mining, where the most frequently expressed concern centered around water quality and quantity. Concerns also related to reducing waterway flow rates, disrupting groundwater flow patterns, endangering, wildlife habitat and lowering of aesthetic values were reported.

          A “water body” is described in the Alberta Public Lands Act as the bed and shores all permanent and naturally occurring bodies of water, and all naturally occurring rivers, streams, watercourses and lakes and in the Alberta Water Act as any location where water flows or is present, whether or not the flow or the presence of water is continuous, intermittent or occurs only during a flood, and includes but is not limited to wetlands and aquifers.  Given the ubiquity of groundwater-surface water exchange, it is more appropriate to view groundwater and surface water as a single source. 

The Alberta Public Lands Act Section 54(1):“No person shall cause, permit or suffer… the existence on any public land of any excavation of any kind that is undesirable…, the doing of any act on public land that may injuriously affect watershed capacity, …and the disturbance of any public land in any manner that results or is likely to result in injury to the bed or shore of any river, stream, watercourse, lake or other body of water or land in the vicinity of that public land…” The text clearly describes the requirement to not cause or allow damage to waterbodies or land in the vicinity of that public land. Who is exempt?

The purpose of the Alberta Water Act is to ‘support and promote’ the conservation and management of water and the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act is to ‘support and promote’ the protection, enhancement and wise use of the environment. Why are these purposes in these acts? 

          In research by The Pembina Institute, County Canada’s Natural Capital: Assessing the real value of Canada’s boreal ecosystems (2009) found that the total non-market value of boreal ecosystem services is 13.8 times greater than the net market value of boreal natural capital extraction. If we apply this calculation to (Sturgeon County sand and gravel extraction Resource Extraction Regulatory Review 2021 – $50 million natural capital extraction), the total non-market value of ecosystem services would equate to $690 million ($50 million x 13.8). This calculation doesn’t take previous extraction into account, and the non-market value of ecosystem services removed. With such high value given to ecosystem services, why wouldn’t resource management and land use decisions need to account for impacts on ecosystem services and the overall state of the regions ‘natural capital’?

          In the 2019 Auditor General of Alberta Report: Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) – Management of Sand and Gravel Pits, since prior to 2008 AEP’s reclamation, inspection, and enforcement processes are still inadequate, and so is the security. Key findings in 2019 conclude that AEP did not implement our recommendations to improve processes to inspect sand and gravel mines on public land, and to enforce reclamation requirements.  

          Why are our concerns still being ignored regarding the irreparable damage by aggregate strip mining activities to the natural functions of the Sturgeon River Watershed?

          It has been felt that ignoring the environment in this manner has had a serious impact on the natural functions (non-recoverable environmental debt) of the Sturgeon River Watershed.

          In correspondence with Alberta Municipal Affairs, “section 60 of the Municipal Government Act (MGA) assigns direction, control and management of water bodies (environmental protection) to municipalities”, “that no other legislation uses the same language in conferring authority” and “should a province wide need be identified to strengthen the role of municipalities in water resource conservation, further clarification of responsibilities may be necessary”.

          We feel our governments have a great responsibility to the people they serve and need to ensure they conduct themselves in a transparent manner, abide by their own rules and laws, are inclusive, engage meaningfully with all stakeholders, and are held accountable for the decisions that they make that impact their residents today and future generations.

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