RED DEER – Proposals to build new gravel pits can be cause for alarm to many rural residents.
The impact on ground water is the most frequent concern, says Don Watson of Alberta Environment, which has worked with a multi-stakeholder committee that includes the sand and gravel industry and municipal officials.
“We’ll take care of the environmental things and the county process can take care of the landowners,” he said.
The province produces more than 40 million tonnes of sand and gravel a year worth $500 million, according to the Alberta Sand and Gravel Producers Association.
Alberta has a provincial code of practice and registration requirements for Class I pits greater than 12.5 acres.
Development applications made to a local municipality must include details about environmental impacts on water use, disposal practices, a list of wastes and substances that are released and conservation and reclamation plans.
The province and sometimes municipalities also require security deposits to cover clean up costs by a third party.
Class II pits are less than 12.5 acres and are the responsibility of local municipalities.
“We don’t get involved in regulating those, but there is still a regulatory requirement at the end of the day for reclamation,” Watson said.
The municipality sets conditions for buffer zones, dust, noise and traffic and can also place additional conditions.
No public appeal is allowed if a gravel pit is a permitted use in that area.
Municipalities can regulate pits to protect the environment. They can prohibit a pit that the province authorized and add requirements and conditions.
A municipality cannot allow a pit that the province prohibited.
Some municipalities ask for proof that the operator already has the proper provincial authorization.
Environmental lawyer Laura Bowman said taking care of the surrounding landscape and water supply is critical when these developments are proposed.
“Ground water assessments should be done as a cost of doing business,” she said at the recent Alberta Synergy conference in Red Deer.
Neighbours’ wells may be affected, but the actual impacts are hard to prove to Alberta Environment. The cumulative effects on ground water are not evaluated.
Residents may question how these operations may affect their wells or aquatic life downstream. Altering ground water flows may cause sinkholes or the leaching of contaminated water into an aquifer through excavation in the pit.
These sites are often located near a water body because they need water for washing the gravel.
Operations adjacent to water bodies are treated as surface diversions and require a water licence. Ground water evaluation is done only when a license is required to divert water or a spring is being developed.
However, local residents may not know about a gravel pit project because no public hearings are required. Large pits are registered with Alberta Environment and must follow the provincial code of practice.
The lack of public notice concerns Bowman.
“There is no set way you can engage in the process,” she said. “That is limited to people who are directly affected.”
Citizens have the right to appeal these projects but they can’t act on those rights if they don’t know a project was approved.
“The onus is on you to find out about this decision right away.”
Alberta environment regulation of gravel pits:
Class I pits
•12.5 acres or more in area
•subject to the code of practice for pits or an existing approval under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act
•There are approximately 550 Class I pits on private land in Alberta
Class II pits
•less than 12.5 acres on private land and any size on public land
•subject to the requirements of the act and the conservation and reclamation regulation
•an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 smaller pits are on private land and 650 pits on public land
•operators must comply with all requirements of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and its regulations and codes of practice. As well, they must comply with the Alberta Water Act and all other applicable provincial and federal laws.