Ad in rural newspaper used to seek public input on central Alberta feedlot, environment minister says

Alberta’s environment minister says there has been public input on a plan to build a cattle feedlot near a popular recreational lake southwest of Edmonton.

Opposition environment critic Marlin Schmidt had written two letters to Environment Minister Jason Nixon asking him to reopen the public comment period for the feedlot project.

Schmidt said a proposal for a 4,000-head feedlot near Pigeon Lake, about 100 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, received neither enough notice nor enough time for the thousands of people in the area to understand its potential consequences and express concerns.

In a written response to Schmidt, Nixon said the public notice was published in the Pipestone Flyer, a small rural weekly, because it’s the newspaper that best covers the area.

Nixon said the Natural Resources Conservation Board also posted the notice on its website.

The Agricultural Operation Practices Act outlines the public notice requirements for such applications, which includes the length of the notice period and who gets notified based on the size of the feedlot, Nixon said. 

A fragile watershed

G&S Cattle Ltd. has applied to the Natural Resources Conservation Board to build the feedlot about four kilometres west of the lake. The new animals would produce an estimated 36 tonnes of manure a day, which would be spread on about six per cent of the lake’s entire watershed.

About 5,200 people have permanent or seasonal homes along the shores of Pigeon Lake and it sees about 100,000 visitors annually drawn to its woods, beaches, boating and fishing. The slow turnover of its water makes it uniquely vulnerable to algae blooms, which residents have spent millions of dollars to fight.

Cattle roam in a field where there will be a potential feedlot near Pigeon Lake Alta, on Sunday May 1, 2022. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Creeks draining the pastures where manure would be spread empty into the lake near popular beaches, a provincial park and a conservation area.

Although “courtesy letters” were sent to immediate neighbours, the only public notice given for the proposal was the March 10 announcement in the Pipestone Flyer, a small rural weekly based in Wetaskiwin. The public comment period closed April 7.

“The timelines are so short,” said Schmidt. “For lots of people, a significant amount of time had elapsed between when the notification was posted and they became aware of the proposal. That didn’t give them enough time to even get the information from the proponent.”

Schmidt also said the board isn’t required to consult widely.

Only concerns from those judged “directly affected” are considered — a determination made by the board. Owning recreational property at the lake or just camping and fishing there isn’t enough.

Schmidt said the system is damaging public confidence.

Similar concerns have been expressed about other Alberta regulators. A survey conducted for a provincial advisory panel found 85 per cent of Albertans felt the province’s energy industry was inadequately governed.

Schmidt said his office has received dozens of calls from concerned citizens on the proposed feedlot.

“It’s very rare for me to get dozens of emails on a particular project,” he said. “It’s definitely caught people’s attention.”

G&S head Greg Thalen has declined interview requests.

300 statements of concern

Despite the tight timelines, more than 300 people have filed statements of concern with the board, as has the Pigeon Lake Watershed Association.

The County of Wetaskiwin has asked for an environmental impact assessment of the project — not something the board normally conducts.

The board tries to render a decision on an application within 65 days, said spokeswoman Janet Harvey. However, this application is likely to take longer.

“It is anticipated that due to the large number of responses received for this application that it will likely take longer to process,” she wrote in an email.

One of many cottages sits along Pigeon Lake Alta. Thousands of Alberta cottagers and homeowners are waiting nervously to see if a provincial regulator will allow a large feedlot to be developed near the popular and environmentally fragile recreational lake. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

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