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Alberta investigates Red Deer County family’s lead-contaminated water well near gravel mine


6 minute read

By Bob Weber

Red Deer County – Alberta Environment is investigating how a family’s water well near a gravel mine became so contaminated by lead it’s no longer drinkable.

The investigation comes as Red Deer County considers expanding mine operations that Jody Young suspects are the source of the lead she and her family may have been drinking for months.

“We have it in our blood,” said Young. “My son’s levels are actually higher than mine.”

Young, who lives just south of Red Deer near the banks of the Red Deer River, has lived within a few hundred metres of the county’s gravel mine for more than a decade.

She grew used to the slight murkiness of her once-clear well water as the mines near her central Alberta home stepped up production. Tests a few years ago showed the water was OK and she preferred the tap to a plastic bottle.

But the water kept getting worse.

“We’ve gone from just seeing it in a bathtub to being able to see it in a glass of water,” she said.

So last summer she asked Alberta Health Services to test her family’s well water. Within days, she got a call.

“They told us to immediately stop drinking our water,” she said. “We weren’t to cook with it. We were advised not even to brush our teeth with it.”

Lead — which can cause anemia, weakness, kidney and brain damage — was above levels fit for human consumption. So was aluminum.

Both metals were subsequently found in blood samples from her family.

“It was deeply concerning to learn of well water contamination in Red Deer County,” said Alberta Environment spokeswoman Carla Jones in an email. “The source of these metals is under investigation.”

On Feb. 7, Young plans to appear at a public hearing hosted by Red Deer County to oppose proposed changes to a county land-use bylaw. The changes would permit gravel mines on land virtually adjacent to her water well.

The proposed expansion site, privately owned, is also on land considered environmentally significant by provincial regulators.

“We are in full compliance with Alberta Environment on our pit,” said Dave Dittrick, Red Deer County’s assistant manager. Private operators would have to follow the same regulations, he said.

“Everything they do will have to be in compliance.”

Dittrick said although the county is co-operating with Alberta Environment, it hasn’t seen the data that prompted Alberta Health’s concern.

“We have not seen any information to substantiate these claims,” he said.

Gravel, or aggregate, mines are needed for everything from paving roads to building houses. Although they’re everywhere in Alberta, data on them is hard to find.

Mines larger than five hectares must be registered and come under provincial regulation. Mines that go below the water table or involve significant water use require a Water Act licence.

“Alberta has a robust regulatory approval process to manage environmental impacts of gravel pits,” said Alberta Environment spokesman Miguel Racin.

Smaller mines — the expansion near Young’s well would be about three hectares — are largely regulated by local land-use bylaws.

But observers say such mines are an increasing concern as Alberta continues to grow.

“It’s a problem in every county,” said Vivian Pharis, an environmentalist who has been involved in previous conflicts over such mines.

“We don’t have any good provincial regulations. The primary decision is made at the municipal level and, as soon as the zoning gets changed, then it seems Alberta Environment’s hands are tied.”

Hydrogeologist Jon Fennell, who has consulted on several mine projects, said gravel mines run the risk of exposing and releasing chemicals formerly held stable.

“If you’re opening (a mine) up and exposing things to oxygen, they can weather and oxidize and get mobilized,” he said. “Any time you disturb the earth, things change.”

While municipalities are in charge of much of the gravel mine permitting process, Fennell points out they are also heavy gravel users.

“They’re very pro-gravel in some parts of the province,” he said.

Red Deer County’s previous attempt to expand its aggregate operations near Young’s home was thrown out in 2022 by a Court of King’s Bench judge over an unfair process.

Enforcement is lax even for mines that do come under provincial rules, Fennell said. Operators may be required to monitor water levels, but not water quality.

“It’s not required,” he said. “If you don’t look, you don’t find.”

Gravel mines are necessary, said Dittrick.

“Aggregate is needed for development and development is ongoing,” he said.

Some sources may be more appropriate than others, said Fennell.

“We have to get (gravel) from somewhere. The question is, from where?”

Young wonders how long her family has been drinking lead-contaminated water. And she wonders why she has to wonder about that at all.

“I’ve had some real moments with this,” she said.

She recalls learning about some of her son’s computer searches.

“I found he was Googling about lead poisoning. He was researching potential impacts to himself.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2023.

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Writer opposing Free Alberta Strategy in national article confuses chartered banks with financial institutions

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From the Free Alberta Strategy Team

In a new article published in the federal-government-funded “The Conversation” publication, Robert L. Ascah, a researcher at the also-federal-government-funded Parkland Institute, attempts to lay the hatchet to the Free Alberta Strategy.

In his piece, entitled “What the Free Alberta Strategy gets wrong about Canada’s banking system,” Mr. Ascah argues that the Alberta Independent Banking Act that is proposed in the Free Alberta Strategy report is unconstitutional because banking is an entirely federal area of jurisdiction.

Here is the key quote from Mr. Ascah:

“The Free Alberta Strategy, however, purports to allow Alberta to incorporate and regulate banks, which is clearly unconstitutional. There’s no mention that this proposal is beyond the powers of the provincial legislature.”

But, as so often seems to happen, this latest Free Alberta Strategy critic clearly doesn’t appear to have read – or taken the time to understand – what the Free Alberta Strategy is actually proposing.

While it’s true that “chartered banks” are federally regulated, that doesn’t mean that any type or form of “banking”, as the term is colloquially used, must be federally regulated.

Credit unions, for example, offer “banking” services, while not being “chartered banks” that are federally regulated.

This definition, while technical, is the crux of the issue.

And while we admit that this is very technical, when you’re talking about writing laws, technicalities matter a lot.

To be clear, here is the exact proposal from the Free Alberta Strategy report itself:

1. Expanding the number of provincially regulated financial institutions and credit unions;

2. Promoting private ownership of these new financial institutions; and

3. Mandating that all provincially regulated financial institutions and credit unions (including ATB) remain compliant with the Alberta Sovereignty Act as it relates to the non-enforcement of federal laws and court decisions deemed to infringe unduly on Alberta’s provincial jurisdiction.

You will note, very clearly, that this proposal in our Free Alberta Strategy report talks about “provincially regulated financial institutions” not “chartered banks”.

This is because the authors of the strategy understand (unlike Mr. Ascah, apparently) that while “chartered banks” must be regulated by the federal government, “financial institutions” can be regulated by the provincial government.

This is exactly why our Free Alberta Strategy report suggests modelling any new “banks” in Alberta on ATB Financial (previously known as Alberta Treasury Branches), which is a long-standing Alberta financial institution.

(Note: Although ATB is a crown corporation, our proposal envisages privately owned and operated financial institutions, not more government-owned and operated financial institutions. Just in case anyone was worried we were suddenly advocating for bigger government!)

Just as Alberta’s credit unions are not “chartered banks” and so are not federally regulated, ATB Financial is not a “chartered bank”, and so it is not regulated by the federal government.

ATB Financial is a “financial institution” that is provincially regulated by the Alberta government under the ATB Financial Act.

This is precisely what the Free Alberta Strategy report proposes – an increase in the number of provincially regulated financial institutions in Alberta.

We can clearly see then that, despite the claim by Mr. Ascah that provincial regulation of banking is unconstitutional, the mere existence of ATB is proof that our proposal is, in fact, constitutional.

The remainder of Mr. Ascah’s article goes on to argue that if Alberta unconstitutionally incorporated its own new “chartered banks”, the federal government would cut those banks off from being able to transfer funds to other banks in Canada, making them impractical for the public to use.

Maybe it’s true that the federal government would cut off any unauthorized provincial “chartered banks” from payment mechanisms.

But, given no one is proposing Alberta incorporate its own new “chartered banks”, this entire second half of the article is an irrelevant straw man argument.

Again, the Free Alberta Strategy proposes to incorporate new provincially regulated financial institutions, like ATB.

And, in case you haven’t noticed, ATB has not been cut off from being able to transfer funds to other banks by the federal government, because – shock – the existence of ATB is perfectly constitutional.

The real question then, is whether or not the first half of Mr. Ascah’s article, where he claims we are proposing to do something unconstitutional, is simply a misunderstanding, or a deliberately misleading diatribe.

Either way, such a fundamental error really makes you wonder why the Parkland Institute would allow the article to be published at all!

Are Parkland Institute staff no longer expected to read the thing they are publicly criticizing anymore?

Are The Conversation editors no longer expected to check whether their authors have their facts straight?

Perhaps the oddest part of this whole situation is that the Parkland Institute, where Mr. Ascah works, has previously written about the benefits of having an Alberta-based, Alberta-regulated financial institution!

They did so in a report that goes into detail explaining the difference between federally regulated chartered banks and provincially regulated financial institutions!

Even stranger still – which Parkland Institute researcher do you think it was who wrote this report?

Yes, you guessed it, it was Robert L. Ascah!

It gets worse…

Once upon a time, Mr. Ascah worked at Alberta Treasury, the government department that is responsible for regulating ATB.

Then, after he worked at Alberta Treasury, Mr. Ascah went to work at ATB itself, where he was responsible for government relations, strategic planning, and economic research.

That’s right folks…

Our Free Alberta Strategy critic, who attacked us by claiming that provincially regulated financial institutions are unconstitutional, actually worked as a senior executive at both the organization he claims is unconstitutional, and the organization that is supposed to regulate the thing that he claims is unconstitutional.

We must either believe, then:

  • That Mr. Ascah, who has written about the benefits of provincially-regulated financial institutions, has worked for a provincially-regulated financial institution, and has worked for the organization that regulates provincially-regulated financial institutions, is somehow entirely unaware that provincially-regulated financial institutions are legal.

Or, we must believe:

  • That Mr. Ascah perfectly understands that provincially-regulated financial institutions are legal and that that is how ATB is established, but that it’s somehow, all of a sudden, now beneficial for him to pretend that he doesn’t, and that anyone suggesting other financial institutions be regulated in that way is suggesting something “unconstitutional”.

How could it possibly be beneficial for Mr. Ascah to pretend that this idea is unconstitutional all of a sudden, I hear you ask?

Well, the answer to that question is actually the least confusing part of his article.

Contained right at the bottom of the article, under “Disclosure statement” (and conveniently excluded from most re-publications of the piece by the media) are 9 little words:

“Robert (Bob) L. Ascah is affiliated with Alberta NDP.”

Of course, affiliated with is a little bit of an understatement in this case.

Mr. Ascah has donated thousands of dollars to the Alberta NDP for many years, while several of his Parkland Institute colleagues are actually running as Alberta NDP candidates in the 2023 Alberta election!

Now, as a non-partisan organization, we generally try to avoid pointing out the political affiliations of individual people.

As an organization, we base our support for ideas on whether the ideas are good or not, rather than on who is proposing them.

But, in this case, we’re not criticizing the person proposing the ideas, but the lack of independence and the conflict of interest inherent in a situation where federal-government-funded researchers are published by federal-government-funded websites and re-printed by federal-government-funded newspapers.

Unfortunately, in a world where government-funded academics get government funding to write government propaganda published in government-funded media, there’s really no incentive to cover the truth anymore.

As to why the federal government would want to fund researchers to write propaganda for them, and fund media outlets to publish it for them, we’ll leave that one to you to answer!

In the end, this is exactly why we need more independent research and independent distribution of ideas in our society.

The Free Alberta Strategy jealously guards our independence.

That’s why we never accept any money or resources from any government, regardless of political stripe.

But that’s also why we need your help.

We need your help so that we can continue to do research and analysis on ways in which Alberta can fight back, such as the Sovereignty Act.

We need your help to further our work to protect Alberta’s interests from a hostile and divisive federal government in Ottawa.

We need your help to grow our supporter, activist, and volunteer network across our great province.

We need your help to share our work with like-minded friends and family in order to get the word out to as many members of the public as possible.

If you’re ready to help, click here:

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Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney accepts role in Calgary advising law firm

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By Dean Bennett in Edmonton

Jason Kenney, more than three months after stepping down as Alberta’s premier, has landed a new role as a Calgary-based adviser in law firm Bennett Jones.

Kenney, who is also a former federal cabinet minister, will work in the public policy group.

Kenney says on Twitter he looks forward to the new job and that his work won’t include lobbying the provincial government or its agencies.

He says Alberta’s ethics commissioner has signed off on his new role and Kenney says he won’t be accepting any other jobs without first checking with the commissioner.

Kenney announced last May he was stepping down as premier following a lukewarm 51 per cent vote of support in a United Conservative Party leadership review.

Kenney was instrumental in creating the UCP in a merger with his Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party, but he fell out of favour with many in the combined party over COVID-19 restrictions and what was seen as a top-down management style.

It was a not an amicable departure.

Kenney publicly clashed with his eventual successor, Premier Danielle Smith, over her plan to introduce sovereignty legislation to challenge what she considers federal intrusions into provincial areas of constitutional authority.

Kenney challenged the legality and economic effect of such a bill, and resigned as a legislature member on the day Smith’s sovereignty act was introduced last November.

Bennett Jones, with offices across Canada and in New York, said Kenney will provide advice on attracting investment in Canada’s energy sector and with Indigenous communities.

“I’m thrilled to be joining this iconic firm, which has both deep Alberta roots and a major national presence,” said Kenney in a statement Wednesday.

“Bennett Jones’ Public Policy group has the greatest policy depth of any Canadian law firm, and I look forward to working with several former colleagues from both senior elected and public service roles.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023

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