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photo of small creek and waterfall flowing through a lush green forest

Protect the Park or Permit the Pit? The Battle for Big Hill

Locals raise alarm over approvals of an open-pit gravel mine near rare spring

A recent government approval has recently raised eyebrows and concerns in the beautiful rolling hills northeast of Cochrane, Alberta. 

The Alberta UCP and Rocky View County have given the thumbs up to Mountain Ash Ltd. to start their 130-hectare “Summit Project” open-pit gravel mining operation near Big Hill Springs Provincial Park. 

While on the surface, it may appear to be a routine development permit decision, those connected with the region’s natural preservation have voiced major concerns.

Photo of a beautiful stream and waterfall flowing through a lush green forest.
Big Hill Springs Provincial Park. Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

Situated northeast of Cochrane, Big Hill Springs isn’t just any patch of green. It’s a cold-water mineral spring serving constant year-round water temperatures, making it an important aquatic habitat. 

In addition, mineral sediments deposited on the rocks create rare tufa formations, attracting visitors to the park’s many waterfalls and lush greenery. 

Visitation to the area has increased so much (now at 250,000 nature enthusiasts annually) that recent infrastructure renovations were needed, costing $1.2 million. 

However, beyond its popularity and pristine beauty, Big Hill Springs Provincial Park plays a vital role in the environment, particularly as a clean water source for the region.

Bighill Creek Preservation Society (BCPS), a local conservation group, reacted quickly to the government’s decision. Within six days of the approval, they appealed the decision, highlighting the risk the mining posed to groundwater resources.

Vivian Pharis, the vice president of BCPS, acknowledges the Calgary region’s increasing need for gravel. However, her group’s concerns lie in the potential impacts of a mining operation set to run for 30 to 40 years.

With sections of the gravel pit mined as deep as 25 meters, the protective layer for the primary spring’s aquifer may be left alarmingly thin.

This isn’t just any spring. Pharis recently told CTV News, “This spring has been ranked federally as the fourth most important thermal spring in Canada, yet it’s hardly recognized, and it’s certainly not well recognized by our province, or they would have protected it much better than they’ve done now.” 

Big Hill Creek, flowing from the thermal aquifer, is a pristine tributary that feeds into Calgary’s primary water supply, the Bow River. Pharis points out that compromising the water quality at the source could have repercussions for the clean water that Calgary is proud of.

Mountain Ash’s Summit Project’s proximity to the park’s primary water source is at the heart of the debate. 

The mine is just 800 meters from the main spring, which gushes out of a concentrated area from the bedrock. 

photo of a creek with green vegetation ice-free during winter
The cold-water spring maintains a near-constant temperature year-round. Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

BCPS warns that mining will remove vast amounts of organic soil, subsoil, and gravel. This could expose the spring to potential contaminants, jeopardizing the water quality and the downstream habitat of various fish species, some of which are endangered.

Dr. Jon Fennell, a renowned expert in water security, echoes these sentiments. 

According to him, gravel removal can change local geochemical conditions, increasing contamination risks. 

Both Fennell and Alberta Parks have suggested a safer distance for any gravel excavation, at least 1.6 km from the park boundary.

Fennell also recommended to the Department of Environment and Protected Areas that they limit excavation to within four metres of the water table, as opposed to one metre, the current industry standard. 

Residents and park users banded together when Rocky View County approved the project in 2021 to petition the county to rethink its approval of the gravel pit. Since the recent approval by the UCP government, the petition has exploded to 12,000 plus signatures.

image of a aerial map shoing the development plan for the Summit Project gravel pit near Big Hill Springs Provincial Park
Summit Project’s site development plan from summitproject.ca

Bruce Waterman, the owner of Mountain Ash Ltd., defends the project, claiming the project underwent rigorous reviews spanning seven years. Waterman is confident their mining activities won’t jeopardize the park’s ecosystems.

In response to the criticisms, Alberta Environment and Protected Areas insist they’ve done their due diligence. They’ve mandated Mountain Ash Ltd. to have comprehensive water monitoring and management plans. Any gravel extraction must ensure no significant changes to water conditions.

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