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Red Deer County residents decry lack of public consultation over ‘enormous’ river water withdrawals

Noise, light, diesel emission complaints were made to the Alberta Energy Regulator
Contributed photo Some noise barriers were installed by Vesta Energy after Red Deer County residents complained about the loudness of the water withdrawal equipment on Red Deer River.

An airline pilot said deafening noise created by an energy company’s pump as it draws water from Red Deer River has forced him to sleep at a hotel some nights.

Red Deer County resident Martin McNally is required to get a certain amount of rest between flights. This was never a problem, he said, until Vesta Energy began drawing water from Red Deer River, near his home on C & E Trail in December.

He discovered the Calgary-based company obtained permission to withdraw half a cubic metre of water per second from Red Deer River — “an enormous amount,” says McNally.

It will be used for deep well injections for oil fracking.

This kind of high-pressure process, used to break apart sub-surface rock, was found to have caused a 4.18 magnitude earthquake near Sylvan Lake in March 2018. As a result, the Alberta Energy Regulator suspended Vesta Energy’s activities in that area.

McNally discovered that Vesta was approved for at least 18 months of river water withdrawals through back-to-back temporary licenses.

The licence approval for a year of water withdrawals, starting in June 2020, is for “diverting up to 900,000 cubic metres from the river for oil and gas drilling and horizontal hydraulic fracturing.”

McNally was told no public consultation is required by the AER, since the company has not gone through the permanent licensing process.

He and other C & E Trail residents are concerned they were never told anything about the project before it started up across the river from them.

“Everybody’s concerned about the water,” said Louise Becker, who with her neighbour, Diane Walker, wants to know more about possible effects on the river.

Red Deer city Coun. Lawrence Lee believes the company should be fully consulting with neighbours, as well as sharing expert information around environmental concerns.

Vesta had initially applied for a permanent licence to withdraw six million cubic metres of water annually from Red Deer River. Lee compared this to having another 80,000-person city springing up upstream of Red Deer — which gets its drinking water from the river.

Like his neighbours, C & E Trail resident Zoltan Zubko supports the oil and gas industry, but also values the river as a vital water source. He said, “We need to be careful about what we do.”

Vesta’s water pumping began before Christmas, and McNally described the operation as creating a massive vacuum cleaner-like noise, day and night.

Until recently, noise readings were hitting 80 decibels — more than twice the approved nighttime noise level of 35 decibels, and much higher than the 45 decibel daytime limit, he added.

Since his complaint, Vesta installed noise barriers. But flood lights from the operation still bounce off low-hanging vapour clouds, produced by the pumps, lighting up the area at night, said McNally.

McNally is bothered by the diesel and light pollution and wonders about its effects on wildlife, including endangered bald eagles in the area.

He’s also concerned about the water extraction method used by Vesta. He’s seen open pools on the frozen river, and fears the company is “boiling” water at these spots to keep it from icing over. He believes that aquatic life could be at risk.

There’s also worry about the spill potential of large diesel tanks sitting on the riverbank.

Vesta released this statement on Friday regarding the public concerns raised: “Vesta is operating within the conditions of the water licence authorized by the AER.”

The company is working with both the residents and the regulator “to ensure our operations remain both safe and compliant.” Additional steps were taken to reduce sound and lighting impacts, stated Vesta.

“The health and safety of employees, contractors, and communities near our operations is paramount.”

Red Deer County, Alberta Environment and the Alberta Energy regulator have heard public complaints about the project.

County Mayor Jim Wood said the municipality has no control over energy projects.

Connor Doane, external relations adviser for the AER, said a Feb. 20 inspection was done of Vesta’s operations on the Red Deer River following two public complaints.

The company was found to be in compliance with AER requirements, said Doane, adding “Vesta has since worked with the AER and the individuals that filed complaints to resolve these concerns.”

Alberta Environment said it’s provided the AER with a directive according to the Water Act for how it is to protect Alberta’s aquatic ecosystems while issuing water licences for energy developments on behalf of government. The directive “has stringent requirements for demonstrating the need for water and reporting water use.”

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Lana Michelin

About the Author: Lana Michelin

Lana Michelin has been a reporter for the Red Deer Advocate since moving to the city in 1991.
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