MLA wants more public comment on feedlot plan near popular Alberta recreational lake

The Alberta government must seek more public comment on a plan to build a cattle feedlot near a popular recreational lake or risk damaging public trust in how the industry is monitored, says an Opposition politician.

New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt says 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.

"They weren't provided adequate notification or a realistic timeline to even learn about the potential impact of the project," Schmidt said.

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.

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.

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 a 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.

"The regulators narrow down the field considerably," Schmidt said. "So many people are excluded."

Schmidt said the system is damaging public confidence. "We need to have a meaningful way to include people in the regulatory process."

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."

Schmidt has written two letters to United Conservative Party Environment Minister Jason Nixon asking him to reopen the public comment period for the feedlot project.

"Citizens want the submission deadline extended beyond April 7 and they want the determination of who is an 'affected party' to be broadened," he wrote on April 5.

Schmidt said he has not received a response.

G&S head Greg Thalen has declined interview requests.

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.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2022.