The Bighill Creek Preservation Society (BCPS) has submitted a statement of concern to Alberta Environment and Parks in an attempt to halt the current gravel pit application by Mountain Ash Limited Partnership.
If approved, the project will see a more than 320-acre gravel pit from a quarry located approximately 300 metres away from the Bighill creek underground headwaters, and 1,200 metres from the Bighill Springs Provincial Park’s boundary.
BCPS believes the gravel mining operation would potentially have huge negative impacts on the groundwater that flows into the park.
The proposed project, located on private land in Rocky View County (RVC), is currently going through regulatory review and would only be allowed to proceed if it meets all legal and regulatory requirements for water and the environment, stated Jason Penner, a communications advisor for Environment and Parks.
Mountain Ash requested regulatory decisions under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (Code of Practice for Pits) and the Water Act. BCPS believes both applications should be denied outright by Environment and Parks.
The regulatory decision under the Water Act enables members of the public who feel they are directly impacted by the project to submit a formal Statement of Concern (SoC).
According to Penner, the deadline for all submissions was Jan. 31 this year, and all SoCs will be reviewed before a decision is made. Mountain Ash may be asked to work with citizens who are considered “directly affected” under the Water Act to address their concerns.
“It is estimated that a regulatory decision regarding the [project] will be made within six to 12 months,” Penner said.
Gerry Bietz, president of BCPS, said Mountain Ash should also apply for impacts on groundwater.
The BCPS’ SoC states the proposed surface mine is located on 323 acres of land overlying the aquifer, which creates the nationally significant Big Hill Spring and sustains Bighill Creek.
“Mountain Ash has told us that irrespective of the fact that they're going to alter the flow of the water into the groundwater in the aquifer that serves Big Hill Springs Provincial Park and Bighill Creek, even though they have stated in their application that they will alter those flows, they will not make an application to have that approved,” Bietz said.
According to the project website, a Hydrogeological Impact Assessment by Mountain Ash indicates the proposed project will not pose any significant or adverse impacts to the existing confined or unconfined groundwater aquifers underlying the project area or the adjacent Big Hill Springs.
In response, Bietz explained the project would remove trees, grass, shrubs, and till to get into the gravel, leaving only one metre of gravel above the flowing water that protects the quality of the water going into the park.
Removing that filtration material starts a leaching process that allows noxious chemicals to be released into the groundwater, Bietz said, quoting a study by Dr. Jon Fennell, a professional hydrogeologist and geochemist.
“Big Hill Springs Provincial Park is a spectacular place – a nationally recognized spring because of the tufa formations that are created by the nature of the water that comes out of that aquifer,” Bietz said. “When this mine goes in, that gravel is agitated, those chemicals are released, and the impact on that tufa and the ability of the park to maintain healthy tufa beds will be put in question.”
Bietz noted that both Environment and Parks, who manages the park, and Dr. Fennell recommended there not be any mines within a kilometre radius of the spring and that for the next half kilometre, they only mine down to four metres of the flowing water to create a buffer zone.
“There's lots of gravel around. They could move three or four miles down the road and find gravel deposits. Geological surveys show lots of them, and they wouldn't be impairing a public asset like this,” Bietz said.
Mountain Ash did not respond to a request by the Rocky View Weekly for comment on why that specific location was chosen.
A Master Site Development Plan submitted by the company to RVC in summer 2020 complies with the relevant policies of the County Plan and includes a land use amendment to change the use of the land from agricultural to Direct Control, allowing for an aggregate extraction.
RVC council approved the 131-hectare gravel pit application in March 2021, despite a letter from Environment and Parks urging them to delay their vote until a more in-depth environmental review could be done.
Bietz is concerned approval of the gravel mine by the provincial government would set the precedent for approvals for all 1,300 acres of lands that are held by companies with gravel interests.
BCPS’ SoC said it would not be possible for Mountain Ash to provide any equivalent form of compensation for irreversible damage to one of Alberta’s most unique parks and the wetlands it contains.
Mountain Ash’s website states an initial two-year groundwater monitoring program was completed to determine pre-development and early development groundwater levels, and 10 groundwater monitoring wells have been installed.
The monitoring program will track fluctuations in groundwater levels on an ongoing basis to measure the quantity and quality of groundwater during the lifespan of the operation – but BCPS claims this study doesn’t account for long-term impacts.
It can take up to seven years for water to migrate through the aquifer and into Big Hill Springs, Bietz said, which means if any harmful effects are detected, it’s already too late and the damage can’t be reversed.
“It would be entirely a shame to put the park and Bighill Creek at risk for a mine that isn't arguably necessary and in the wrong place,” he said.
BCPS’ main concern, as reiterated in their SoC, is the impact on the groundwater and the resulting effect on the spring, creek, park, and related wetlands and riparian habitats.
Aside from the harmful effects on groundwater, BCPS requests that Environment and Parks deny Mountain Ash’s application in totality, as mitigation would be entirely ineffective, the damage would be irreparable, and for the fact that the potential economic and societal benefits of the pit and other gravel mines are small relative to the loss of the valuable watershed and recreational values represented by the Big Hill Spring, park, and creek.