ATCO Electric agrees to $31 million penalty following regulator’s investigation
EDMONTON — Regulated utility ATCO Electric has agreed to pay a $31 million administrative penalty after an Alberta Utilities Commission investigation found it deliberately overpaid a First Nation group for work on a new transmission line, and then failed to disclose the reasons for it when it applied to be reimbursed by ratepayers for the extra cost.
An agreed statement of facts contained in a settlement agreement between ATCO Electric Ltd. and the commission’s enforcement staff says the company sole-sourced a contract in 2018 for work that was necessary for an electric transmission line to Jasper, Alta.
The company that won the contract was co-owned by the Simpcw First Nation in Barriere, B.C. and the agreement says one of the reasons for the sole-sourcing was that another of Calgary-based ATCO’s subsidiaries had a prior deal with the First Nation for infrastructure projects that included the provision of work camps on the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project.
The statement of facts says ATCO Electric feared that if it didn’t grant the contract to the First Nation group and instead put the work to tender, the group might back out of its deal with ATCO Structures and Logistics and partner with another, non-ATCO company on the Trans Mountain work.
The agreed statement says ATCO Electric paid several million dollars more than market value for some of the Jasper line work, and staff attempted to conceal the reasons for the overpayment when they sought to recover the extra money from Alberta consumers.
It states the investigation was sparked by a whistleblower, and notes the agreement between the utility commission’s enforcement staff and ATCO Electric must still be approved by the Alberta Utilities Commission.
The commission must be satisfied the settlement is in the public interest.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2022.
Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press
Saskatchewan entrepreneur says government thwarted his ag-plastics recycling business
Dallon Leger thought he was part of the solution.
The entrepreneur from Yorkton, Sask., about 190 kilometres northeast of Regina, says he collected more than 1.8 million kilograms of used grain bags over the past few years, helping his neighbours deal with their mounting plastic problem.
Leger’s business, EcoGenX, transported the grain bags to a company in the United States that would recycle them. The company would turn the bags into various agricultural plastic products, including new grain bags. EcoGenX would then sell the recycled product in Saskatchewan.
But he says the Saskatchewan government has stifled his business through rules he believes are unfair.
The province recently took Leger to court and won, fining him for not following the province’s grain bag regulations. It effectively forced him to close his business.
“I’m not perfect, no entrepreneur is, but my government was my biggest hurdle,” said Leger, a farm worker, in an interview earlier this month. “That should never have happened, not when climate change and environment as a whole is the hot topic right now.”
Leger pleaded guilty in late April for failing to comply with the government’s Agricultural Packaging Waste Stewardship Regulations, therefore violating a section of Saskatchewan’s Environment and Management Protection Act.
Court determined he did not operate a product stewardship program that was approved by the environment minister. He was fined $580 and must pay $10,604 to Cleanfarms, a regulated non-profit that also collects grain bags in the province.
Leger explained his lawyer advised him to plead guilty because it wouldn’t have been a winning fight.
However, he said the province’s position is still not right.
“How can you charge me under the environmental act, find me guilty of anything, when I did no harm to the environment? That says a lot,” he said. “I felt I did something good.”
The Saskatchewan government regulates the industry, requiring grain bag sellers to participate in an approved product stewardship program.
EcoGenX didn’t operate under an approved program.
Environment Minister Dana Skoropad said the legislation is meant to ensure agricultural plastics recycling is sustainable in Saskatchewan.
“The community of sellers of these products is quite small in Saskatchewan, so it’s certainly important that all first sellers be compliant with the regulations and a level playing field be existent,” Skoropad said. “And that ensures the financial stability and sustainability of the program.”
Cleanfarms is the only approved product stewardship program in Saskatchewan, which means grain bag sellers must work with Cleanfarms or get their own program rubber-stamped if they want to participate.
Under the Cleanfarms program, farmers can deliver bags to more than 40 collection points set up by the organization.
Sellers collect an environment handling fee when they sell the bags. The sellers then remit those fees to Cleanfarms so the organization can operate its collection sites.
Leger didn’t remit environmental handling fees to Cleanfarms when he sold bags, arguing he didn’t need to because his company did all the work in partnership with the American recycler.
“I would travel anywhere in the province, roll up their bags. I would do all the work,” he said. “I had the best answer for this fairly large problem — like it’s a significant amount of plastic.”
The $10,604 Leger is required to pay to Cleanfarms represents the environmental handling fees he was supposed to pay to the organization.
Skoropad said he’s open to working with anyone who would meet the requirements in the legislation.
He said Leger did not submit a proposal.
However, Leger said he tried to work with the provincial government but was told the province was not interested in another operator.
“I’m told, ‘We have to focus on the sustainability of the current approved program,'” he said. “Well, I’m sorry I’m a threat to this non-profit organization. That’s kind of what a business is meant to do, is grow and succeed.”
Leger accused the government of siding with Cleanfarms, pointing to past lobbying by CropLife Canada, a sister organization of Cleanfarms.
In 2016, CropLife representatives lobbied Saskatchewan ministers about “promoting the benefits of industry stewardship programs.” It noted Cleanfarms had been active in the province.
CropLife, which is based in Ontario, lobbied former environment minister Scott Moe, who’s now premier, and former agriculture minister Lyle Stewart. Ted Menzies, CropLife’s former president, was among those lobbying. Menzies had previously served as a Conservative MP and cabinet minister before moving to CropLife.
In 2018, the province’s Agricultural Packaging Waste Stewardship Regulations came into effect.
“I believe this created a monopoly and gives an out-of-province organization 100 per cent of the money that Saskatchewan farmers pay,” Leger said.
Skorpopad denied the accusations.
“Cleanfarms submitted an application to be a product stewardship operator and that would be the extent of my knowledge of that,” he said. “As I said before, we’re open to working with anyone who would meet the requirements of the regulations on this program.”
Skoropad said he doesn’t know if there have been previous applications to become an operator. He said there are 14 regulated grain bag sellers in Saskatchewan.
Leger said he has plans to continue fighting his case.
“I was demonized, so to me that’s worth continuing to fight for and why I didn’t give up.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2023.
Jeremy Simes, The Canadian Press
Drying conditions return in Alberta, crews see more intense fire activity
A burnt metal sign hangs from a tree, damaged by recent wildfires, in Drayton Valley Alta., on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. As more wildfire evacuees are being allowed to return home in Alberta, provincial officials warn that warm, dry conditions are returning this weekend in some areas.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
As more wildfire evacuees are being allowed to return home in Alberta, provincial officials warn that warm, dry conditions are returning this weekend in some areas.
Melissa Story with Alberta Wildfire says the elevated fire conditions were anticipated and that crews on the ground are seeing more intense fire activity on the perimeters of wildfires.
But she says most fires haven’t grown substantially and she doesn’t believe any have jumped their containment lines.
The number of evacuees as of Saturday afternoon stood at 5,257, down from over 7,200 on Wednesday, following cooler and wetter conditions in the last week.
Nearly 50 wildfires in Alberta’s forest protection area are burning, with 14 of those listed as out-of-control.
Cyndee Evans, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, says the situation remains serious despite recent positive news.
“While we can take heart that more Albertans are starting to return home, we cannot afford to drop our guard. Now is not the time for complacency. Please continue to do your part and help prevent the spread of wildfires and further damage from occurring,” Evans told a news conference Saturday.
Story noted that showers were forecast for some parts of Alberta later Saturday, reducing fire danger, but also cautioned they bring the risk of lightning.
Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said in a tweet Saturday that an extension for the deployment of Canadian Armed Forces personnel to assist in firefighting efforts has been approved.
Story said firefighters from New Zealand were welcomed to the province Friday and that nearly 200 firefighters and support staff from Australia would be arriving this weekend.
Alberta remains under a provincewide state of emergency, although some bans on fires, ATVs and off-highway vehicles have been relaxed in recent days.
Parkland County west of Edmonton lifted a state of local emergency on Friday that had been in place since April 29, and downgraded a fire ban to a fire restriction. It said that meant “safe fires in approved fire pits with a screen are allowed and do not require a permit.”
Fires without screens still required permits, however, and open fires in the county are still banned.
The High Level Forest Area wildfire update noted the Pasqua fire located in the community of Fox Lake saw an increase in fire activity after warm and dry weather on Friday, and that temperatures and fire behaviour was expected to pick up on Saturday.
Fox Lake remains evacuated, but residents are being permitted to sign up for tours of the community on Monday to view damage. A statement from the Little Red River Cree Nation said priority will be given to people who have lost their homes.
“Tours will be visual only, as it is still not safe for members to walk around the community or house sites due to hot spots as well as possible toxins and hazards in the areas that have been burned,” said a statement posted online by the First Nation on Friday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2023.
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