Hwy 567 / Big Hill Springs Road Gravel Pit Applications
Help Continue the Fight Against Summit Pit!
The Bighill Creek Preservation Society and residents who live along Highway 567 are asking for your help to try to stop the Summit pit. For those of you not familiar with it, the Society is dedicated to the long-term protection of the Bighill Creek watershed (see www.bighillcreek.ca).
In the face of overwhelming evidence of major environmental risks to the springs that form the core of Big Hill Springs Provincial Park and an explicit request from Alberta Parks to investigate these risks before making a decision, the majority on RVC council approved Summit pit’s application at the beginning of March.
Before the gravel pit can begin operating, it requires regulatory approval from Alberta Environment. Its staff have said they weigh the evidence before issuing licenses to operate gravel pits. We are hopeful that the ministry’s staff will do the right thing and refuse to license the Summit pit’s operations. The Bighill Creek Preservation Society is asking people to send letters to the Minister presenting the case against Summit pit. The key background points are listed below, and a draft letter can be accessed here.
Summit pit proposes to excavate 20 – 30 metres of gravel down to 1 metre above the aquifer that feeds Big Hill Springs and Big Hill Creek. This will remove the filter that protects the aquifer from contamination.
Residents commissioned Dr. Jon Fennel, a hydrogeologist, who is also a hydrochemist, to prepare an independent study evaluating the potential risks. His study concluded that the contamination risks were significant and would negatively impact water quality and thereby negatively impact wildlife habitat, including trout breeding grounds. He recommended a 1.6 km setback from the boundary of Big Hill Springs Provincial Park for any gravel extraction and a further 800 metre setback in which extraction would not occur within 4 metres of the water table.
Alberta Parks asked Rocky View to either implement these recommended setbacks or undertake a third-party assessment of the potential impacts of Summit’s proposed operations on the quantity and quality of groundwater that feeds Big Hill Springs. Council ignored this request and did neither.
Alberta Environment must issue a regulatory license under the Environmental Protection & Enhancement Act before the pit can begin operations. This license has not yet been granted. Intervening with the Minister will hopefully stop the ministry staff from issuing the license.
The pristine waters emanating from the Big Hill Springs and its Creek and the unique tufa rock formations these have created are the central attractions in Big Hill Springs Provincial Park. The Park attracts about 250,000 visitors each year. The province has just spent $1.2 million of our tax dollars upgrading the Park.
The proposed gravel pit poses serious risks to the aquifer that feeds Big Hill Springs and Creek – without them, the Park is gone. The Park is a unique ecological and recreational asset. It has aboriginal, cultural, and local historical significance.
The location of the proposed pit is part of a well-used wildlife corridor for grizzly bears, cougars, moose, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, to name a few. Endangered fish species live and breed in the Creek.
There is also an online petition that can be accessed here.
RVC Council Approves Summit Pit
At its March 2nd meeting, Rocky View Council approved Mountain Ash Limited Partnership’s application for the Summit gravel pit on Highway 567 just west of Big Hill Springs Provincial Park.
Councillor Kissel, as the local councillor, tried to make her fellow councillors see reason and address the concerns that were being raised by residents and Alberta Parks. Unfortunately, only Councillors Wright & Hanson supported her efforts.
In approving the Summit Pit, Council ignored compelling scientific evidence that gravel extraction at the site poses significant risks to the aquifer that feeds the Springs and Creek – the heart of Big Hill Springs Provincial Park. Based on that science, Alberta Parks asked Council to impose a 1.6 km setback between the Park and any aggregate extraction or to get an independent assessment of the environmental risks to the Park before making its decision.
Instead, the council majority chose to accept the unsupported assertions from the applicant’s technical experts – even though they had not examined or evaluated the risks to the Springs and Creek.
Council also ignored overwhelming opposition from local residents and many major environmental and wildlife organizations.
In the Summit Pit decision, the council majority decided that, since the residents had not met with the applicant to resolve the contradictions in their respective technical studies, council was justified in ignoring the evidence the residents presented. From our perspective, this is outrageous. It has always been the applicant’s responsibility to present the best case they can for their application. Then, those who do not support the application present the best case they can against it. Council then has the responsibility to weigh what is presented and base its decision on that information.
New Summit Pit Application
Mountain Ash, the aggregate company behind the Summit Pit along Highway 567, has come forward with an additional land use redesignation application and a new Master Site Development Plan (MSDP). Their application received first reading on June 9, 2020 The public hearing has not been scheduled.
As a refresher, the Summit Pit is one of three gravel applications along Highway 567 approved by the last council. Residents successfully challenged the approval of all three applications in court. A key component of the judge’s decision was that Council had failed to properly consider the cumulative impacts of the three gravel pits. The County is currently appealing that decision and the appeal is scheduled for February 2021.
The new Summit Pit application seeks to redesignate the quarter section immediately south of its quarter section that is a part of the ongoing lawsuit. Of note, its new MSDP covers gravel extraction for both quarter sections, with Phase 1 in the quarter section that is the subject of this application. If this application is approved, it would allow Summit Pit become operational before the appeal is resolved.
Summit Pit “hosted” on-line public engagement in August 2020. A summary of the responses they received as well as other information about the proposal is available on their website. Other important information about the new Summit Pit application, with links for access, includes:
· The material presented to Council for first reading of Summit’s new application - starts on page 405
· Summit's new Master Site Development Plan
· Summit's Master Site Development Plan for its earlier application that is part of the ongoing court case.
Judicial Review of the Gravel Pit Applications on Hwy 567
Rocky View Council approved three new gravel pits on Big Hill Springs Road / Highway 567 in 2017 and 2018. Local residents who live close to the location of the proposed gravel pits filed a judicial review challenging those decisions. In September 2019, the judge ruled in favour of the residents. The judge concluded that Council’s decisions failed to comply with the County Plan, failed to consider the cumulative impacts of the proposed gravel pits, and acted contrary to the objectives of good governance.
The court decision was significant because courts usually grant municipalities a great deal of leeway in their decision-making and typically only overturn municipal bylaws if the court concludes they are “aberrant” or that “no reasonable body could have adopted them”. In essence, the magnitude and obviousness of the defects in the Master Site Development Plans supporting the applications meant that council’s decisions were patently unreasonable – the test necessary for the court to rule against a municipal bylaw.
A summary of the court ruling can be found here and the complete ruling from the judge is here.
Not surprisingly, the County decided to appeal this decision. Given that the judge’s ruling simply requires the County to redo the public hearings for these gravel pit applications, the appeal decision appears to be a highly questionable use of taxpayers’ dollars. The appeal is scheduled to be heard in February 2021.
Summit Pit Expansion Application - 2018
The initial application for the Summit Pit, approved in 2017, was for 40 acres of the quarter section it owns adjacent to the other two gravel pit applications that were also approved at the same time in 2017, in the dying days of the last Coucnil. Both of the other applications were for the full quarter sections owned by each of the respective gravel companies. At that time Summit argued that it was only asking for the redesignation of the first 40 acres so that it would remain publicly accountable as it continued its operations onto the remainder of its quarter section. However, Mountain Ash, the company behind the Summit Pit, subsequently applied to redesignate the remainder of the quarter section it owns immediately south of Hwy 567. This application was approved in April 2018.
There were a multitude of reasons why this application should have been rejected, including:
Summit’s original redesignation, for which this is an expansion, is the subject of an ongoing court challenge. To allow the expansion application to move forward while the court challenge remains unresolved is, at best, disrespectful of the residents sponsoring the court challenge.
To allow yet another gravel application to come forward in the middle of the County’s ongoing public consultations on the revised Aggregate Resource Plan defies understanding. It raises serious questions about the County’s commitment to listen to residents in this round of consultations.
Of the three new gravel pits along Big Hill Springs Road, Summit may raise the most serious environmental concerns since it is the closest to Big Hill Springs Provincial Park and to an environmentally sensitive area being preserved by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
Then there are the ongoing and very serious traffic safety concerns along Big Hill Springs Road from what appears to be an ever-increasing volume of heavy gravel truck traffic. Not to mention the growing concerns about the cumulative impact from so many gravel pits in one location.
Details of the Summit application are available here.