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No fly zone

An auction-bought fire truck chillin' on the runway // Mimi Williams
An auction-bought fire truck chillin' on the runway // Mimi Williams

Don Keltie has lived and worked on his 300-acre Parkland County potato farm for 60 years. “My whole life,” says. “Just like my father before me.” With the opening of the new privately owned Parkland Airport approximately 1.5 km away, Keltie and his wife Roxanne are wondering if they’ll ever be able to plant their crops again.

The facility, technically an aerodrome until it receives Transport Canada certification as an airport, is located on Range Road 270 (Sandhills Road), approximately an hour west of Edmonton and less than a kilometre east of the Enoch Cree Nation.

Keltie fears construction of the 800-metre runway this fall has compromised the topography of the land. Located in a drainage catchment area and subject to a municipal drainage plan, there’s been flooding in the area before, he says. He’s one of several area farmers and acreage owners who worry the Parkland Airport Development Corporation failed to consider the effects the development would have on adjacent properties.

“Will I even be able to plant in the spring?” he asks. “I guess we’ll have to wait until the melt to find out.”

Parkland County administration shares Keltie’s concerns. “There are many things that need to be considered in order for any type of development to go forward in that area and we fear the impacts of rushing this type of project without having completed all of the necessary geotechnical and engineering groundwork,” said Paul Hanlan, the Manager of Planning and Development Services in a press release in September.

A public meeting that month, attended by more than 200 area residents as well as representatives from PADC, was described by local media as “volatile.” Summer Ebinger was there and says that description is accurate. Along with drainage issues, questions around emergency response and the site’s proximity to the Clifford E Lee bird sanctuary and the Wagner Natural Area, people are frustrated that nobody at any level of government has any control over the process.

“If you build a home, you need a series of permits and inspections,” she explains. “But we have learned that if you purchase a property with the intent to build an airport in the middle of an already populated area, you need nothing.”

In September, when the county issued a stop work order on construction because there was no development permit in place, PADC ignored it. When the county shut down the access road, the construction crews went around the barriers. In October, a Court of Queen’s Bench Justice confirmed the county had no authority to deny development or haul permits because air transportation falls under federal jurisdiction. The province is similarly powerless to exert any of its usual authorities. A key problem, according to both Hanlan and Ebinger, is that the airport doesn’t actually have to exist and Transport Canada generally doesn’t step in to conduct the certification process until after the airport is built and operational.

Given the absence of any requirement for coordinated environmental impact assessments, they both wonder if considerable damage may have already been done. “Is it possible to remove six feet of prime agricultural topsoil and replace it with gravel without causing significant impact to the ecosystem?” she asks.

Parkland County Mayor Rod Shaigec has sent a letter to Minister of Transportation Lisa Raitt requesting that the Aeronautics Act be amended and the Bloc Québécois raised the matter in the House of Commons earlier this month because constituents in Neuville, Quebec are facing a similar situation.

Legislative changes take time, however, and area residents have immediate concerns they fear won’t wait until parliament gets around to dealing with the Act. They banded together to form the Anti-Aerodrome Cooperative and have retained legal counsel. The group’s website says, “Through emails, telephone calls, banging on doors and exploring legal routes, we intend to exhaust all avenues available to us to prevent the development of the proposed aerodrome.”

Their efforts did not go unnoticed. On October 25, Transport Canada and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency advised PADC they would need to seek certification and adhere to CEAA guidelines. They were ordered to submit a package containing a wildlife management and emergency response plan to Transport Canada by November 25.

Although PADC did not respond to several phone calls and emails requesting an interview, Ebinger says a representative of Transport Canada advised her group that PADC met the deadline.

With the aerodrome open for business since the end of November and no word from federal officials on what PADC’s emergency response plan entails, there are immediate concerns.

Paul Hanlan, the county’s Planning and Development Manager, says that the municipality has a close eye on the situation. The county is currently served by a mutual aid agreement with the volunteer fire department out of Stony Plain. A new fire-hall opening in Acheson in 2014 will be closer but has a surface railway crossing separating it from the airport and would involve, in a best case scenario, a 25-minute response time.

“The county has been perfectly clear with both Transport Canada and PADC that we do not feel in any way obligated to provide emergency response services to the aerodrome,” Hanlan told us.

Don Keltie and many of his neighbours have similar concerns and suggests the fact PADC bought a used fire truck and parked it at the end of the runway is “sort of like false advertising.” He questions whether the truck, purchased at auction, is even operational.

“And if it is, what are they going to pump?” he wonders. “All those guys have there is a water well. That’s not going to help much in putting out a fire.”

Ebinger, media and legal liaison for the Cooperative, says this is much more than a case of NIMBYism. Transport Canada regulations prohibit potato farms within a 3.2 km radius of an airstrip because of fears that infestation increases bird populations, increasing the risk of bird strikes—a significant aeronautical safety concern. She points out there are several potato farms in the area.

Don Keltie is aware of those regulations and worries what it might mean for farmers like him down the road.

“It doesn’t seem to matter that we were here first,” he laments.

To complicate matters further, on November 26, the Enoch Cree Nation filed a Statement of Claim against PADC, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, the Minister of Transport, and the Minister of Environment. In it they allege the project’s proponents failed to consult them, as required under the Constitution. They further claim that the development, adjacent to reserve lands, has caused and continues to cause “irreparable harm, and constitute[s] an immediate, as well as an ongoing, danger or threat to the Plaintiffs’ Treaty rights, Aboriginal rights, traditional way of life and Aboriginal cultural values.”

A date to hear the case in court has not yet been set and statements of claim contain allegations not yet proven in court.

In the meantime, Ebinger and her group vow to continue fighting on all fronts. “Through all of our research and consultations, it’s become very clear that there really could not be a worse place to build an airport than this site.”



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