We initiated a class action law suit and filed a grievance against Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development for burning wood near or homes. It took about 3 years, but as of May, 2017, they have agreed that they won’t do it again and will review and modify their procedures. We didn’t get a financial settlement, but we didn’t actually want one – we wanted to protect our health.
In February of 2014 I received several messages from neighbours on Forestry Way asking, “What’s with all the smoke”? You could see a yellow haze hanging in the air and when I took a breath, it was like a -30 degree day when that breath gets stuck in your throat. Have you ever had that happen? Some of my neighbours got sick and went to see their doctor. Others experienced nausea and sore throats or planned to stay in the city to avoid the smoke. Others said, it didn’t affect them at all.
Local lawyer, Clint Docken, said he was willing to launch a class action lawsuit against Environment and Sustainable Development (ESRD) who was burning waste wood in Kananaskis a few hundred metres from our homes. I agreed to represent the class. About 12 people agreed to join the class. The class, according to the claim, is anyone living west of Range Road 52 in West Bragg Creek.
Clint developed the claim, collecting affidavits, researching the toxic carcinogens in smoke, collecting operating plans, reports, maps, weather forecasts and policies from ESRD. Now, over a year and a half later, we just heard testimony given when Clint interviewed the manager and director of the project. If they settle the claim in our favour, the class will likely receive money. Clint said we could use the cy-près doctrine to donate or transfer the money to some worthy cause. I’d like to know who you think is worthy: Redwood Meadows EMS, Firefighters Association, Bragg Creek Environmental Coalition or Trails Association, a respiratory or lung association? Or who? Maybe we could develop an emercency response plan, identifying risks, responses and techniques to spread the word using traditional and new techniques.
It turns out that there were about a dozen days during January, February and early March of 2014, when the burning occurred, that according to policy and the weather forecasts ESRD produced, recommended against burning. But in every case the ESRD manager said the conditions on-site were favourable for burning. So they did. They were supposed to burn between 3 and 6 piles of slash (waste wood) per day. They were falling behind schedule, so one day 7 piles were burned, another day 9 were burned. Weather data from the Elbow Ranger Station supported the manager’s statement that it was safe to burn. Safe, to them, meant that the fire wouldn’t likely spread. But it wasn’t safe for us. The prevailing westerly winds blew the smoke into our neighbourhood, then the wind died down and started coming from the southeast. There was low cloud cover, so the smoke was trapped all around us. It turns out ESRD doesn’t pay a lot of attention to smoke. They aren’t well trained, their crews don’t wear respiratory filters, and they don’t monitor conditions to see how it disperses. The year previous they used an incinerator to burn the wood which reduced the amount of smoke because the fire burns hotter. But in 2014 the cost was too high and the scheduling didn’t work so they burned in open pits.
From what I heard during the testimony, ESRD doesn’t have a very well developed plan for protecting adjacent communities from the effects of toxic contaminants. The Oil & Gas industry does. Maybe there should be conditions placed on operations that put us in harm’s way. ESRD doesn’t devote a lot of effort to advising people about their activities – no road signs like they do for prescribed burns in Banff. In fact, their communications strategy is pretty bad. It’s hard to inform Bragg Creek residents and visitors about things they need to know. How can we do it better? Can we help ESRD and others operating here, learn how to communicate with communities like ours? We are looking for creative solutions so that some good can come out of this bad experience.
2017 Update. We don’t seem to have made any progress in communicating with the community.