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Future dangers of gravel pits

I was intrigued by a May 26 Letter to the Editor in the Express from Annette Gray complaining about the cost of a load of gravel and praising the prosperity gravel brings. Yes, our society is built on gravel.

I was intrigued by a May 26 Letter to the Editor in the Express from Annette Gray complaining about the cost of a load of gravel and praising the prosperity gravel brings.

Yes, our society is built on gravel. We need it, but not when it is excavated from the flood plain of the river.

The people of Red Deer, if they care about the safety of their drinking water, need to sit up and take note of what is happening west of Red Deer on the river.

No resident is in an immediate danger but in the long term there is very likely to be a lot more heavy metals in the water than there are today.

In fact we may be closing the barn door after the horse is out. If you pick up a fishing guide there is already a warning not to eat fish caught in the Red Deer River below the Dickson Dam.

Heavy metals (lead, mercury, arsenic etc.) are present in all mountain streams in concentration that are normally very small and are not dangerous. But if you mine and wash gravel in the flood plain of the river, a common practice for the last 100 years, you concentrate millions of years of metal deposits.

Eventually these tailings, which now contain much higher concentrations of heavy metals, can easily be moved by flood waters out into the river. Since heavy metals are not easily removed in the water treatment systems the cost will inevitably go up along with an increased risk to the residents of Red Deer, Innisfail, Bowden, Olds, Drumheller or anyone drinking the water downstream.

Normally the pit operator is required to ensure that the gravel washings and wash water are kept away from the river but nobody really polices the operation.

During the flood of 2005, a 140-acre gravel excavation site on the Medicine Flats Aquifer was hammered by flood waters. This site was jointly operated by the County and a private operator and had been storing washings for 20 years. The complete tailings pit containing thousands of tons of silt and sand was washed into the river. Whoops, you didn't hear about that. Have I let the cat out of the bag?

This year on May 22 and application was filed with the Department of Environmental Management for another 100-acre excavation in this same Medicine Flats Aquifer. An application of this size has a life of 20 to 30 years so you will have a lot more years to be inundated.

Anyone who believes they are impacted can send in a letter of objection but be forewarned just because the heavy metals level of the water you drink will go up it doesn't give you the legal right to object. The word impacted has a very narrow definition in this case and the future health of your children, or your grandchildren, is definitely not included.

The government and the experts will swear on a stack of bibles that this area doesn't flood but in the exact spot considered for this application, the dogs, cats, horses, cows and people were all evacuated by the County's emergency response team in the flood of 2005. I was there! What am I missing?

I understand that removing gravel from this area could possibly have a competitive cost advantage compared to an area away from the river of up to a $1 per cubic yard. Whoopee, what is the cost of your children's health?

We are heading down the same path; history will repeat itself, wake up Red Deer.

Let our dozing government department and the County councilors know you are not one bit happy having your drinking water put at further risk.

Ken Van Dewark

Red Deer County

Ken Van Dewark is the director for the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and a former elected member on Red Deer County council