Back in May, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that sand was a mineral under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA). This made an
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) required for large scale extraction. In response, the Alberta government proposed amending the EPEA and Public Lands
Act (PLA) so sand was no longer a mineral, removing the requirement for an EIA.
While introduced in early July, a final decision by the government will not happen quickly. Local views
Like most issues debated in the legislature, there are people in Slave Lake with opposite
views on the subject.
Jule Asterisk works with Keepers of the Athabasca and lives in Slave Lake. As recently
as 2018, Keepers was involved in an environmental challenge to two gravel pits in the
She says, “this new UCP decision basically negates decades of work that some folks have put into protecting riparian areas.”
A Keepers media release of a 2018 challenge to two gravel pits says, “potential threats include: noise and air pollution echoing through the valley…as well as roaring gravel trucks on the roads six days a week 12 hours a day apparently unassessed and unexamined devastation to local wildlife…impacts on the local water and the larger
aquifer, and the Tawatinaw river and lake within a few hundred metres of both
Ed Nash of Nash Enterprises in Slave Lake is on the Alberta Sand
and Gravel Association (ASGA) board. ASGA requested that the government
change the definition.
Even the judges in Alexis v Alberta had trouble coming up with a definition, says Nash. Each of the three government departments dealing with sand and gravel operators had different definitions, which is confusing. Making the definitions agree will make the documents easier to understand.
Small and massive operations
In Alberta, sand extraction varies from 5,000 tonnes to 1.5 million tonnes per year.
The difference between sand and silica sand, says Nash, is grain size and shape. Silica
sand has to be a uniform size and very fine. It is used for sandblasting and fracking. It is extracted on a larger scale.
Within the evidence for Alexis v Alberta was the proposal for the silica sand extraction site in 2017. It was proposed to be 68.6 hectares and extract 500,000 tonnes of sand per year for 15 years. It also had support infrastructure including six kilometres of slurry line, chemical-additives equipment and infrastructure, and much more. It referenced existing silica sand operations which extracted one million to 1.5 million tonnes of sand.
In the Lesser Slave Lake area, gravel, sand, and clay are all extracted, but not on this scale. There are about six companies with gravel pits in the area.
The combined output of Nash’s three gravel pits is around 40,000 tonnes a year, so each pit is well below this level. These are each around 40 acres, which is about 16 hectares.
This means that whether the government defines them as a quarry or a pit an EIA isn’t
There isn’t a large market for sand, says Nash, so the sand pit in the Jackpines, only produces around 5,000 tonnes per year. Nash has had the sand lease for this area since 1978. The Mistsue gravel pit was started in the early 1980s. The Nash gravel pits are about half done.
The Jackpines are sand dunes, says Nash. It is the old beach line from a thousand years
ago when the lake was larger. Some of the dunes are around 20 feet tall. Nash has dug down at least 10 feet below level ground and hasn’t reached the end of the sand.
Environmental Impact Assessment
In Alexis v Alberta, all three judges deemed sand a mineral under the EPEA. However, two said that proposed extraction was clearly a quarry, not a pit, but the other said it could be a quarry, or a pit. This is significant because any quarry which produces over 45,000 tonnes per year requires an EIA, but a pit never requires one.
However, the director of Alberta Environment and Parks can order one for any sized pit or quarry.
One of the judges, The Honourable Madam Justice Pentelechuk, in her decision says, “the EPEA is one of this province’s key pieces of environmental legislation.”
In 2015, the Alberta government published ‘Alberta’s Environmental Assessment Process.’
It says “In Alberta, laws such as the EPEA and the Water Act protect the environment by
regulating industrial activities.”
There are four steps: EIA, public interest decision, approval with conditions, and compliance. The EIA looks at environmental, social, economic and health implications.
On the Alberta website, there are EIAs from 1973 to 2019. This includes four assessments for quarries with start dates from 1999 to 2010.
The Alberta government’s media release on the proposed amendment says, Bill 31 would amend the definition of minerals and pits in the EPEA, and remove references to silica sand in the Public Lands Act (PLA). The goal of the EPEA amendment is to ensure that sand is not classified as mineral, but can be regulated under the current process, Code of Practice for Pits (2003). Removing silica sand from the PLA, will create “certainty about the interpretation of sand.”
Bill 31 passed first reading.
In Canada, bills are numbered based on the legislative session, says the University of Alberta library law basics. Bills are introduced in first reading. Then on a different day, they are debated and typically referred to a committee for a second reading. When the committee is finished, these are returned to the legislature for the third reading. These then go to the Lieutenant Governor for Royal Assent.