‘They’re not making any more of the stuff’

Gravel running out in south end of M.D.

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Bob Beaulac knows where the last great deposit of gravel is in the Slave Lake region. He says it contains millions of cubic metres of the stuff – enough to last for decades.

The only problem: “It’s pretty much inaccessible right now,” says the former Alberta Transportation gravel prospector. “It would take a million dollars or more.”

Beaulac should know what he is talking about. In the 1980s and 90s his job – or part of it – was to roam the countryside, looking for gravel deposits on behalf of the provincial government. Like other sub-surface resource hunters, the gravel prospector does much of his work by examining maps and aerial photographs and taking educated guesses about where the desired material may be lying hidden, not far beneath.

It helps to know something about the last ice age – particularly what was happening as the glacier that covered the region was melting and receding. Where melting glacier water rushed down from high country to low, that’s where gravel collected. The pit at Faust is an example, Beaulac says, where meltwater running down from the Swan Hills deposited gravel in significant amounts. That pit – like many others – is probably depleted now or close to it, he says. As for gravel in the M.D. of Lesser Slave River – apart from the one aforementioned, “there isn’t much,” he says.

Why this subject came up, in fact, is because the M.D. of Lesser Slave River is facing the end of its pit near Flatbush. It has come to light recently there’s more there than meets the eye, but it won’t last long even if the very last of it is scraped up. Every bit counts, but the M.D. is going to have to find more gravel in the area – either that or face expensive hauling over longer distances, which it would like to avoid. Beaulac thinks there isn’t anymore, having examined the whole area when he worked for the government in that capacity. Lesser Slave River interim CAO Barry Kolenosky thinks otherwise.

“That pit is along the Pembina River,” he says. “We’d look at other sources along the ridge. There will be other seams.”

How that’s done is the M.D. would send in an excavator – or maybe a drilling rig – in winter, to check out certain spots identified as likely.
Kolenosky says it has been a long time since the M.D. has done anything like that – if ever. The pits it has worked for many years have been handed down, for the most part, from other users. But they’ll all run out, and then the M.D. has got to find other ones. Because the appetite for gravel is big and not going anywhere.

“Yeah, and they’re not making any more of that stuff,” Kolenosky says.

For perspective, the M.D. crushing contract this year called for 75,000 tonnes.

So far, so good on the Flatbush pit, though. Crushing contractor Carwald has found additional tonnage there, previously thought to not exist. How that happened, Kolenosky speculates, is previous contractors “cherry-picked,” taking the easy-to-get-at stuff, and in the process burying other material even deeper than it was already. Carwald has proposed to expose that, leftover gravel around the edges, crush it for a good rate and add a few thousand tonnes to the M.D.’s stockpile. Almost as good as money in the bank.

The longer view
Taking the longer view, Beaulac figures it’s inevitable the big deposit in the hills south of Slave Lake will have to be exploited. He thinks the province should be the one to open it up, but has noticed a tendency in recent years to ‘download’ that sort of thing onto municipalities. It could come down to a joint effort between several of those. Big Lakes and Opportunity, he noted, have large requirements for gravel and dwindling sources.

Beaulac says it was him that found the huge deposit. It’s right under the Flat Top forestry lookout tower, he says – or at least the part he sampled is. He thinks it’s quite extensive. And it’s not quite like the usual seam of gravel. Deeper, for one thing. He remembers bringing in a hoe to dig where he thought it might lie and finding the machine couldn’t get deep enough. But there were some tantalizing signs of riches further down.

“So we brought in a specialized rig from California,” he says, “drilled and hit clean gravel.”

“It’s the biggest one I ever located,” Beaulac says. “It’ has seven million cubic metres, just on the edge of it!” Beaulac adds that the assessment of the deposit, based on its unusual characteristics, determined it was not left behind by the last ice age, but “from the previous glaciation! That’s why it’s so high up.” Not to mentioned buried deeper than the usual gravel seam that’s only 10,000 years or so old.

Alberta Transportation has the rights to it. Municipalities are “second in line,” on all Crown land when it comes to gravel, Kolenosky says. The M.D. is not looking at developing new sources in the Slave Lake area at the moment. But the time will inevitably come. Pits near Mitsue and north of Smith are holding out for now. Another deposit near the southwest end of the Wabasca highway (754) is also serving well for gravel demand in that area and further north and east. Beaulac says there isn’t another gravel source going north until about 50 kilometres north of Red Earth Creek, just where the Loon and Wabasca Rivers meet. That’s why portions of Hwy. 88 weren’t even built on a gravel base, he says. Instead they used sand (which there’s a lot more of and much closer), “with cement mixed in.” What gravel that was used in road construction came from the pits off 754. A bridge across Marten Creek opened up much more of that. Bridges are expensive, and so are upgraded roads into places such as Flat Top tower.

The gravel will wait. It’s been sitting there for at least 135,000 years.

Gravel is a vital commodity for a rural municipality, and the M.D. of Lesser Slave River is scraping the bottom of the pit in the south end of the M.D.

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