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Alberta family wants regulator to force talks on contaminated farm

WATCH ABOVE: A farm family near Edson says their lives are on hold after their land was contaminated by a nearby gas plant. Alberta's Energy Regulator has now stepped in. Tom Vernon reports.

An Alberta family whose farmland has been tainted by chemical contamination is asking the province’s energy regulator to force the responsible companies to negotiate compensation.

“These are very solid facts upon which the regulator can demonstrate it does have the ability to be an enforcer when things go wrong,” said Keith Wilson, lawyer for Ron and Lonni Saken.

The Sakens were informed in 2014 that groundwater under their dairy farm – which has been in the family since 1929 – was contaminated by a solvent used in the treatment of sour gas.

READ MORE: Energy regulator orders water delivery to Alberta farm contaminated by gas plant

That solvent comes from a gas plant owned by Bonavista Energy, which bought the plant from Suncor (TSX:SU) in 2010. Bonavista’s studies show the leaching began years before it bought the plant.

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Experts say it will be at least a decade before the groundwater is safe and will more likely take 30 years or longer. Meanwhile, the contamination prevents the Sakens from selling their farm or borrowing against it.

Plans to expand the farm to allow their son and his fiancee to join it have been put on hold.

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The Alberta Energy Regulator has ordered Bonavista to truck at least 9.5 million litres a year to the farm for the family, staff and cattle. Bonavista has complied.

But the water is only a stop-gap, said Wilson. He points to provisions in the 2013 law that created the agency, allowing it to direct companies to attend a dispute resolution meeting.

His letter to the regulator asks it to force both Bonavista and Suncor to do so.

“The meeting will provide an opportunity for the two energy companies known to be responsible for the contamination of the Saken farm to develop a long-term solution,” he wrote.

In a letter to the regulator, Bonavista says it is willing to attend such a meeting but is wary of the stakes. It argues the rules say those talks could only involve the order to supply water.

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“Bonavista understands Mr. Wilson’s request to relate to more than the order,” says the company’s letter.

It said it would negotiate with the Sakens if the scope was agreed on in advance.

In earlier correspondence with The Canadian Press, Suncor has said it’s “not appropriate” to comment on a plant it no longer owns.

Nigel Bankes, a resource law professor at the University of Calgary, said Wilson might get the regulator to force Bonavista to the table, but is unlikely to get Suncor.

He said both companies could be included in a contaminated sites order using provincial legislation.

“Then there is a possibility of implicating other persons responsible, (which) would include a prior owner of the facility,” Bankes said.

“I’m not sure why that wouldn’t have been done yet. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt there is contamination.”

A spokesman for the Alberta Energy Regulator was not immediately available.