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Rocky View County residents remain concerned about West Cochrane gravel operation

“This information that has been put in front of them should be of interest. At least it should be checked in the field to see if this actually needs to be a concern, or is an issue."
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Rocky View County residents are still concerned about the impacts of a large gravel development, despite Rocky View County Council's decision to reduce the size of the project. File photo.

COCHRANE— Residents near the controversial Cochrane West Gravel Pit are still concerned about the development moving forward despite Rocky View County Council’s decision to drastically reduce the size of the development.

An application by BURNCO Rock Products to expand a gravel operation roughly 1.5 kilometres west of Cochrane was scaled back after Rocky View County Council received significant public opposition to the proposal at the July 6 Public Hearing regarding the application.

BURNCO’s application would have expanded its operation by roughly 944 acres, which would have been developed in quarter sections over the next several decades.

Rocky View County Council gave first reading to a motion to direct administration to work with BURNCO to rezone a 160-acre parcel of land to a Direct Control District between Beaupre Creek and Grand Valley Creek which could be developed into a gravel pit.

Despite the changes, Rocky View residents near the development are still worried.

“I think that there are some real concerns about water contamination, environmental contamination, downstream water for Cochrane and Calgary, as well as the immediate water table and watershed,” said county resident Patti Lott, whose property sits some 10 kilometres away from the development. “Whether it’s 16 acres or 1,600 acres, those kinds of concerns need to be addressed. I think there should be some third-party research done on it. The onus is on BURNCO to prove that their activities will not be harmful.”

Concerns around the development first arose after hydrologist and geochemist Jon Fennell conducted an experiment where he ran laboratory grade water through a column of aggregate materials taken from the proposed development site.

The experiment yielded large amounts of sediment in the water, which has the potential to wash into the Bow River and cover underwater nests of the aquatic inhabitants, suffocating and ultimately killing their eggs.

The second result was an alarming collection of chemicals in the effluent including elements like arsenic, chromium, cobalt, mercury and lead, among other things.

Fennell said the concentrations of those chemicals in the water exceeded the standards set by the Alberta Tier 1 Soil and Groundwater Guidelines, Alberta’s Water Quality Guideline for the Protection of Aquatic Life and Health Canada’s drinking water guidelines.

Lott said she is worried about the dust and noise created by the development potentially reaching her property, but acknowledged that she is too far away to be severely impacted by it.

“My concerns are with the larger environment, with the neighbouring land owners who are immediately adjacent to it, with the quality of the water,” she said. “Nobody owns the land, in a sense. We are all affected. It’s our responsibility, regardless of whether we are immediately affected or not, I think, to speak up.”

Lott has concerns that the remediation efforts might not be enough to reverse the damage if the worst-case scenario comes to pass and any harmful elements make their way into a major aquifer.

She added that she believes the process needs to be slowed down and further examination needs to be given to the potential impact.

“I think this needs to be slowed down. To imagine that they have the expertise or the know-how to give approval to something that could affect the landscape and the water and human beings 100 years or more into the future is preposterous,” she said. “I think they need to open this up to more public consultation as well as further scientific review.”

Hamish Kerfoot is another resident of Rocky View County who lives on Grand Valley Road, just across Highway 1A from the proposed development.

Kerfoot said his chief concerns are dust, noise and an increase in traffic on Highway 1A, which already suffers from traffic congestion on busy weekends.

“On a long weekend in the summer time, I drive down to the highway, and I can’t get onto the highway because it’s backed all the way up to the Forestry Road,” he said. “They’re not building a train siding to move that gravel out, it’s all going to be moving on the highway.”

According to BURNCO’s Master Site Development Plan, gravel crushing at the Cochrane West Pit will take place 24 hours a day, which is already occurring at the current pit.

“You can hear them crushing gravel 24 hours a day,” Kerfoot said. “It’s a persistent noise, 24 hours a day, crushing gravel 5 or 6 kilometres away. It’s unpleasant.”

Kerfoot lives where he does to enjoy the “peace and quiet” of the countryside.  

He believes Rocky View County’s decision to slow the development down was due to the issues surround water quality and the risk of potentially polluting the Bow River.

The Cochrane West development has setbacks as little as 60 metres from the Bow River in certain areas, which Fennell has said is not sufficient act as a filter for groundwater as it flows towards the Bow.

“Messing around with the water in the province in any fashion at the moment— I mean, we’re in the middle of a stinking drought, the result of climate change, and we’re in a water deficit region,” Kerfoot said. “Anything leaking out of an 1,100-acre gravel pit is horrifying to think of, but even a 160-acre gravel pit, I mean that’s half a mile-by half a mile. That’s a big chunk of ground to be disturbing the filtration patterns on.”

Kerfoot acknowledged that gravel mining operations are necessary and useful, but he felt that the process should be slowed down and the effects studied before the entire area is considered for development.

Fennell said he felt as though the decision to reduce the overall size of the development was a “partial success.”

“I think the landowners were … feeling better that it wasn’t going to be a mega pit. It was a measured approach on their part, on the councillor’s part. I would have hoped that they would have asked BURNCO to do a little bit more work to convince them everything was OK,” Fennell said.

During the public hearing the idea was put forward that BURNCO work with a third party, and specifically named Fennell as a possibility, to further assess the situation.

Fennell said he would be open to the possibility.

“I can understand their position. They don’t believe that this is an issue, but that’s not good enough. You have to look at it, you have to investigate it,” he said. “Convince yourself and convince everybody else. These councillors are making decisions in the dark, so to speak.”

Fennell said there are monitoring stations already installed around the current pit and he would hope to see instruments be installed at those sites to understand, in the case of a large recharge event, what is flushing through them.

“This information that has been put in front of them should be of interest. At least it should be checked in the field to see if this actually needs to be a concern, or is an issue,” he said.

Fennell said he believes that the requirements for a development this close to a critical aquifer and people should be held to a higher standard than one that is in an isolated area away from the public or a sensitive ecosystem.

“When you’re asking to do a development like this, when it’s particularly close to sensitive aquatic receptors and things like that, we can’t just do the minimum that the code requires. When we’re getting close to sensitive receptors there should be a much higher level of rigour required. The impact is possible, so you need to at least assess it.”

Rocky View County Council has said that BURNCO is free to return in a year’s time to reapply for another expansion to the Cochrane West project.