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Proposed regional road in St. Albert, Alberta

Petition: No. 106A

Issue(s): Biological diversity, environmental assessment, human health/environmental health, transport, and water

Petitioner(s): Dave Burkhart

Date Received: 1 April 2004

Status: Completed

Summary: The petitioner believes that the St. Albert West Regional Road project will threaten Big Lake. The petitioner feels this project will also contaminate the regional water supply because there are two aquifers directly below the proposed road. In order to build the proposed road, landfill sites and sewage lagoons would also have to be crossed. 

Federal Departments Responsible for Reply: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Petition

Dave Burkhart
214 Grandin Drive
St. Albert, Alberta
March 27, 2004

Office of the Auditor General
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development
240 Sparks Street
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0G6

Subject: West Regional Road, St. Albert, Alberta
FEAI Reference Number: 36923
Responsible Authority under CEAA: Fisheries and Oceans

Dear Commissioner Gélinas,

I am writing today to express my concerns regarding the proposed St. Albert West Regional Road. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada and Alberta Environment are currently conducting an environmental screening for the project; a decision based on the results of the screening appears imminent.

I am told proposals for a road that would skirt St. Albert on the west go back at least 20 years. I am familiar only with what has transpired since the mid 1990s so will outline just the recent history. Please refer to the attached* aerial photo in reading the following narrative.

The proposed road alignment is immediately adjacent to Big Lake. Big Lake is an internationally recognized important bird area that supports a variety of migratory waterfowl including at-risk bird species such as the Trumpeter Swan, American Bittern, Short-eared Owl, Sprague's Pipit, Black-Crowned Night Heron, and White-winged Scooter. The provincial government has designated Big Lake a Conservation Natural Area.

Underlying the entire area is a significant groundwater resource, known as the Empress Formation, that comprises the Beverly and Onoway aquifers. The junction of the thalwegs of the two aquifers is located directly beneath the proposed road. Flow from the aquifers is from northwest to southeast. The aquifers provide drinking water to towns located downstream.

The proposed road encroaches upon several man-made structures. In the 1950s three sewage lagoons were constructed immediately adjacent to the Sturgeon River where it flows out of Big Lake. A landfill was situated adjacent to the lagoons on the north. In the 1970s, the two northernmost sewage lagoons were decommissioned to serve as nuisance grounds. Access to the dumps was uncontrolled and long-time residents tell stories of wanton dumping of household and construction wastes from both local and remote sources. Eventually the two former sewage lagoons became full and were partially (although not properly -- even by old standards) decommissioned and covered over with a thin veneer of soil.

The third sewage lagoon was also decommissioned but was not filled with garbage. It currently functions as a stormwater management facility for nearby urban industrial and residential areas. Worth mentioning is the fact that the former sewage lagoons and nuisance grounds are situated much too close to the Sturgeon River and would never be permitted by today's standards.

In 1996, the city of St. Albert, in response to pressures from developers to provide access to lands in West St. Albert, proposed a road with an alignment would have run through the west corner of the former sewage lagoon that is now a stormwater management facility (Route A in the attached* photo). The city's environmental consultants determined that construction of bridge pilings required for such an alignment could result in contamination of the regional aquifers from toxic leachate known to be present in the landfills. The consultants recommended the road alignment be moved further south to avoid the former landfills (Route B).

The problem with both alignments was that they continued on the opposite side of the Sturgeon river into the flood plains of Big Lake. In fact, concerns were raised that the road alignments would have been situated within the old lake bed of Big Lake. Certainly, unless the road were built significantly higher than the surrounding wetlands, which would have required an enormous amount of fill, it would have been under water whenever Big Lake experienced flood conditions.

Either proposed alignment would have been an engineering, environmental and economic nightmare. En masse, St. Albert citizens raised a hue and cry. In 1997, a petition to stop the road was signed by over 10,000 residents in the space of a few weeks. Predictably, city council of the day sat up and took notice. They initiated a committee, led by traffic experts and filled by citizen volunteers, to investigate alternatives to the original road alignment. The committee met for over 18 months, investigated all possible alignments and finally came up with a viable road alignment. In the spring of 2000 they released a report which recommended a road that would run north through the adjacent industrial area, along an existing arterial (Riel Drive) and that would cross the Sturgeon River well away from the shoreline of Big Lake while avoiding the lagoon and the dumps. Two possible river crossings were identified. Of the two, Route C in the attached* photo was recommended for the reason that it avoided any contact with the northernmost landfill.

St. Albert Council of the day accepted the committee's report, wrote it into the city's Municipal Development Plan and began preparations to construct the road which was dubbed Ray Gibbon Drive in honour of a former mayor.

The year 2001 brought a municipal election to St. Albert. A group called "Sensible Choice", whose members insisted upon remaining anonymous, mounted an extensive advertising campaign against the Ray Gibbon Drive alignment. Their advertising was, following the election, determined by the Canadian Advertising Standards Council to be false and misleading. The group was supported in their agenda by a new slate of council candidates who were opposed to the selected road alignment. Several of the candidates who were elected campaigned on a promise to hold a plebiscite on the various road alignments. Only 37 percent of St. Albert electors came to the polls that year to elect the new council.

Within days of being elected, the new council passed a resolution not to hold a plebiscite on the road. Instead they hired consultants and began making preparations to construct a road along a different alignment, one that would run through the stormwater management pond, across the former dump, and into the floodplains of Big Lake. This then is the currently proposed road alignment (Route E on the attached* photo). The current alignment is virtually the same as the original alignment but a slight distance farther away from the lake and wetlands. It runs through the middle of the same landfill that the consulting engineers advised should be avoided with the original alignment.

It was deemed that Federal and Provincial approval was required for the road to proceed and that an Environmental Impact Assessment was required.

In my opinion, the EIA for this project has generated more uncertainties than it has answered. Local environmental groups have replied to the EIA and its supplemental documents with submissions to both the proponent and to DFO. Many of the uncertainties brought forward by the environmental groups remain unanswered.

The problem of contaminated leachate from the old dumps is still uncertain. Written correspondence exists from the mid 1990s where Alberta Environment has investigated and stated that leachate is entering the Sturgeon River -- a clear contravention of the Federal Fisheries Act. The proponent has initiated a plan to monitor the leachate but has proposed the monitoring be conducted during construction. If leachate is entering the river, I believe federal law mandates that it be stopped immediately -- before any construction begins.

There is a problem with arsenic-contaminated sediments in the bottom of the storm-water treatment pond that was a former sewage lagoon. Only six areas in the 16.2 hectare pond were tested during the course of the EIA yet that minimum sampling revealed the pond's sediments contained heavy metals, including arsenic and hydrocarbons in excess of accepted standards. The proponent's geotechnical consultant initially recommended removing the contaminated sediment prior to construction. That was later changed to just covering the contaminated sediments with soil as part of the pond restructuring required by the project.

The proponent is proposing to reduce the stormwater treatment pond in size and route additional runoff from the road into it. They also propose to change the pond outflow, which currently goes into the Sturgeon River, so that runoff is routed into the adjacent wetlands. The proponent has submitted no engineering calculations with the EIA, and my investigations have been unable to unearth any that might exist, to indicate that the smaller pond will be able to adequately treat the industrial and residential runoff currently entering the pond as well as the additional runoff generated by the road. The EIA provided no study or investigation that indicated vegetation in the adjacent wetlands would be able to survive the additional runoff the re-configured pond will place into it.

It is my opinion the EIA does not adequately address the impact that road noise will have on migratory waterfowl that currently use Big Lake. The road will run through the flood plains of the lake and within meters of nesting areas. Studies throughout the world indicate many species of song birds in forests adjacent to such highways will not reproduce if their calls cannot be heard by potential mates. I believe there is a very good chance that road noise will affect the ability of endangered bird species resident in this important birding area to reproduce.

The large stormwater treatment pond currently provides important habitat for migratory waterfowl. It acts as a sheltered staging area for birds when inclement weather makes Big Lake inhospitable. Often there are more birds in the pond than there are in the part of the lake adjacent to the pond. The proponent is planning to remove much of the open water habitat in this important staging area by infilling it to provide compensatory constructed wetlands.

The road will bisect a significant wildlife corridor that runs between Big Lake and a nearby old growth forest. Known communities of moose, deer and other mammals currently live in the vicinity of both natural areas yet the proponent has indicated the only road crossing that will be provided for large mammals will be a narrow footpath, used by humans, that runs under the bridge.

Extremely rare bryophyte communities (accorded an S1 rating by the Alberta Government meaning five or fewer communities exist in the province) were found in the middle of the proposed road alignment during the course of the EIA. The proponent admits the chance for successful transplantation of these bryophytes is non-existent. No effective mitigation has been proffered for the loss of the rare bryophyte communities.

There has been no public involvement in choosing the road alignment. During the course of the EIA, consultants for the proponent met with several special interest and environmental groups but not one public meeting was called to solicit opinion on the proposed alignment. No consideration has been given to the viable alternative road alignment that was selected in the earlier study.

The terms of reference produced by DFO for the EIA require the proponent to provide details of how the project will comply with the federal policy on wetlands. That policy clearly indicates the primary response to an impact upon wetlands must be avoidance through consideration of alternatives. The proponent's only response to the loss of wetlands occasioned by this road alignment has been compensation. That compensation is far from satisfactory in that it will negatively impact existing bird habitat.

It is my opinion this is an unnecessary (given identified alternatives), ill-advised project that has the potential to cause serious harm to flora and fauna as well as ground and surface waters in this important ecological area.

Given the problems identified with deleterious substances, and their proximity to significant ground and surface waters, I believe the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has the authority to deny approval for the project to proceed. The Government of Canada may also have obligations under the Migratory Birds Act that would prohibit providing approval.

The CEAA, at Section 4.(2), Duties of the Government of Canada, stipulates that the precautionary principle must be applied in such matters to protect the environment and human health. Clearly, application of that principle would mean the proposed project should not proceed.

I ask that the Responsible Authority for the environmental screening for this project (DFO), not take any action that would permit the proposed road to proceed. Instead, I request that the Responsible Authority advise the proponent to investigate alternatives to the project. Given the lack of public involvement to date in this project, I request that the Responsible Authority suggest to the proponent that the public be involved in all discussions leading up to selection of an alternative road alignment.

At the very minimum, I respectfully suggest that a comprehensive public panel review is warranted before the Government of Canada can take any action that would permit this project to proceed.

Thank you for considering my requests.

Sincerely,

[Original signed by Dave Burkhart]

Dave Burkhart
214 Grandin Village
St. Albert, Alberta
T8N 2J3

*[attachment not posted]

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Minister's Response: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

August 13, 2004

Mr. Dave Burkhart
214 Grandin Village
St. Albert, Alberta
T8N 2J3

Dear Mr. Burkhart:

The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development has forwarded to me your correspondence of March 27, 2004 Petition No. 106 regarding the environmental assessment process for the proposed St. Albert West Regional Road in St. Albert, Alberta. Thank you for providing me the valuable background information and history for this proposal.

As per its Fisheries Act responsibilities, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) conducted a preliminary assessment of the proposed Sturgeon River crossing, part of the City of St. Albert's proposed West Regional Road. After mitigation, it was determined that the residual impacts on fish habitat were acceptable and would require a subsection 35(2) Authorization under the Fisheries Act. As a result, DFO became a Responsible Authority (RA) for the screening level environmental assessment of this aspect of the proposed project pursuant to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA).

For the purpose of the CEAA environmental assessment (EA), the project encompasses the bridge construction and operation, and all related work in and around water. This includes appropriate mitigation measures, approaches to the bridge and the section of the road that is within the 1 in 100 year flood plain as these areas could be in fish habitat or have an impact on fish habitat. Specialist advice is being provided by Environment Canada, and the environmental assessment is being conducted in concert with the province of Alberta in accordance with the Canada-Alberta Agreement for Environmental Assessment Cooperation.

Your primary concern deals with the consideration of alternatives to the City's proposed project. For the purpose of conducting this screening level environmental assessment under CEAA, DFO determined the scope of the project to be, as described in the above paragraph, the proposed bridge construction and operation, not the overall West Regional Road Project proposed by the City. As a result of that determination and the acceptability of the proposed crossing under the Fisheries Act, DFO did not find it appropriate to look at alternatives to the initial river crossing. DFO remains open, however, to look at alternative crossings if the City were to consider an alternative course for the road that would lead to another river crossing.

As the Responsible Authority, DFO will make a decision, in accordance with the provisions of CEAA, on a course of action in respect of the project (identified as indicated above), including whether, taking into account the implementation of any mitigation measures that DFO considers appropriate, the project under assessment is or is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects. This decision cannot be made until the screening is completed. Once completed, the screening report will be placed on the public registry.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention. Please feel free to contact Mr. John Englert, District Manager, Edmonton District Office, at (780) 495-8948 if you have any other questions or concerns.

Yours truly,

[Original signed by Geoff Regan, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans]

Geoff Regan