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Alberta investigates family’s lead-contaminated water well near gravel mine

Alberta Environment is investigating how a family’s water well near a gravel mine became so contaminated by lead it’s no longer drinkable.

The investigation comes as Red Deer County considers expanding mine operations that Jody Young suspects are the source of the lead she and her family may have been drinking for months.

“We have it in our blood,” said Young. “My son’s levels are actually higher than mine.”

Young, who lives just south of Red Deer near the banks of the Red Deer River, has lived within a few hundred metres of the county’s gravel mine for more than a decade. 

She grew used to the slight murkiness of her once-clear well water as the mines near her central Alberta home stepped up production. Tests a few years ago showed the water was OK and she preferred the tap to a plastic bottle. 

But the water kept getting worse.

“We’ve gone from just seeing it in a bathtub to being able to see it in a glass of water,” she said. 

So last summer she asked Alberta Health Services to test her family’s well water. Within days, she got a call.

“They told us to immediately stop drinking our water,” she said. “We weren’t to cook with it. We were advised not even to brush our teeth with it.”

Lead — which can cause anemia, weakness, kidney and brain damage — was above levels fit for human consumption. So was aluminum.

Both metals were subsequently found in blood samples from her family.

“It was deeply concerning to learn of well water contamination in Red Deer County,” said Alberta Environment spokeswoman Carla Jones in an email. “The source of these metals is under investigation.” 

On Feb. 7, Young plans to appear at a public hearing hosted by Red Deer County to oppose proposed changes to a county land-use bylaw. The changes would permit gravel mines on land virtually adjacent to her water well.

The proposed expansion site, privately owned, is also on land considered environmentally significant by provincial regulators.

“We are in full compliance with Alberta Environment on our pit,” said Dave Dittrick, Red Deer County’s assistant manager. Private operators would have to follow the same regulations, he said.

“Everything they do will have to be in compliance.”

Dittrick said although the county is co-operating with Alberta Environment, it hasn’t seen the data that prompted Alberta Health’s concern. 

“We have not seen any information to substantiate these claims,” he said. 

Gravel, or aggregate, mines are needed for everything from paving roads to building houses. Although they’re everywhere in Alberta, data on them is hard to find. 

Mines larger than five hectares must be registered and come under provincial regulation. Mines that go below the water table or involve significant water use require a Water Act licence.

“Alberta has a robust regulatory approval process to manage environmental impacts of gravel pits,” said Alberta Environment spokesman Miguel Racin. 

Smaller mines — the expansion near Young’s well would be about three hectares — are largely regulated by local land-use bylaws. 

But observers say such mines are an increasing concern as Alberta continues to grow.

“It’s a problem in every county,” said Vivian Pharis, an environmentalist who has been involved in previous conflicts over such mines.

“We don’t have any good provincial regulations. The primary decision is made at the municipal level and, as soon as the zoning gets changed, then it seems Alberta Environment’s hands are tied.” 

Hydrogeologist Jon Fennell, who has consulted on several mine projects, said gravel mines run the risk of exposing and releasing chemicals formerly held stable.

“If you’re opening (a mine) up and exposing things to oxygen, they can weather and oxidize and get mobilized,” he said. “Any time you disturb the earth, things change.”

While municipalities are in charge of much of the gravel mine permitting process, Fennell points out they are also heavy gravel users.

“They’re very pro-gravel in some parts of the province,” he said. 

Red Deer County’s previous attempt to expand its aggregate operations near Young’s home was thrown outin 2022 by a Court of King’s Bench judge over an unfair process.

Enforcement is lax even for mines that do come under provincial rules, Fennell said. Operators may be required to monitor water levels, but not water quality.

“It’s not required,” he said. “If you don’t look, you don’t find.”

Gravel mines are necessary, said Dittrick.

“Aggregate is needed for development and development is ongoing,” he said.

Some sources may be more appropriate than others, said Fennell.

“We have to get (gravel) from somewhere. The question is, from where?”

Young wonders how long her family has been drinking lead-contaminated water. And she wonders why she has to wonder about that at all.

“I’ve had some real moments with this,” she said. 

She recalls learning about some of her son’s computer searches.

“I found he was Googling about lead poisoning. He was researching potential impacts to himself.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2023.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press