Farmers in Lamont County are concerned about their health and livelihood after sand from a nearby plant started blowing into their fields.
For the last year, Brenda Broda has watched mountains of sand pile up next to the SIL Industrial Minerals plant next door – far more than ever before.
“They just keep going higher and higher and they keep asking to get more permits to get more sand. But where are they going to put it?” she said.
In addition, activity at the plant can be heard clearly from her house.
“The noise levels at night – it runs 24/7 – are so bad. The loaders bang on the hoppers. It’s so loud it feels like our house is shaking.”
At the same time, her infant and toddler were repeatedly going to the hospital for respiratory problems.
“My kids were coughing really bad and we thought maybe it was our old trailer. So we spent every last dime we had to get a brand new trailer out here for the safety of my kids,” she said. “But it didn’t change anything.”
“We’ve had the trailer here three months and I’ve got sand in my furnace and in my ducts and my kids are still coughing,” she explained.
Now, she says her goats and miniature horses have developed coughs too.
At the start of February, Broda was shocked to see her farmland wasn’t the brilliant white of fresh snow, but rather a dark brown. It was covered in a layer of sand, sand she believes could be causing health problems for her family and her livestock.
Her neighbours have similar concerns.
“My horses have been coughing quite a bit,” Murray Hosack said.
“I used to have one I thought was bad. Now I’ve got two or three. Something is causing it and it’s not my hay.”
His wife notices the sand when she walks the family’s dogs.
“I go outside and I have dust on my lips. I have dust on my teeth,” Jeanette Hosack said. “It’s just grit from the sand plant.”
When the Hosack’s open their windows, they say their sills are covered in sand.
Next door, Peter Lysyk took samples of one square metre of snow. When it melted, he says he was left with an entire sandwich bag of fine sand.
He also fears for his family’s health.
“It gets into your lungs, it gets everywhere. And we don’t have breathing masks. My animals – my cows, are eating the snow as water in the winter time,” Lysyk said.
His wife’s family has owned farmland in the area since 1901.
“We don’t want to leave our home. We love it here. It’s where we live. It’s where our kids grew up. So we don’t want them to buy us out. We want them to be responsible. We don’t want their sand blowing on our property.”
Residents alerted SIL to the problem and after taking a look, the company called Alberta Environment. Now, an investigation is underway.
“Since that time we’ve been working with them to figure out A) What caused it. B) How do we get it cleaned up?” the company’s legal counsel, Sean Mudge, said.
“Hopefully in the not too distance future we will help put everything right. It certainly wasn’t intentional. We’ll work with everybody moving forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
He added the company has yet to determine exactly what is causing the sand to blow onto neighbouring fields.
“We’re not looking to be a bad neighbour,” Mudge said.
“If we caused it, we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again and we want to clean up the mess that’s there.”
Right now though, it’s business as usual. Lysyk doesn’t agree with that.
“Neighbours and health are secondary to everything, to production. So that’s what we’re mad about. that’s what we’d like to see changed,” he said.
Lamont County’s Chief Administrative Officer, Robyn Singleton, said the county does not have jurisdiction over environmental or health concerns. It only gives operating permits.
He said if Alberta Environment’s investigation finds a problem, the province can task SIL with remediation.
Lamont County, however, may look at restricting the height of the sand stockpiles with new bylaws.
“You’ve got to wonder, how high can it safely be done?” Singleton said. “Those piles are fairly high, there’s no doubt about it.”
Singleton also confirmed to Global News that SIL has applied for an expansion to its plant site – it is currently being considered.
“We have to try and find the best balance between the interests of the residents and the interests of business. It’s a reality that in order for the municipality to deliver any of its services, we need revenue. The best source of revenue is industry. Without the industry, we’re in a tough position to deliver.”
The farmers said they’re not looking for the sand plant to close, they realize the economic impact it has – they just hope their concerns will be addressed.
“I want to be able to protect my family. I’ll do anything for them and for my livestock. This is our livelihood and it’s getting ruined,” Broda said.
“I want this cleaned up. I want a safe environment for my kids.”
A GoFundMe has since been started to help Broda relocate her family until the issues with the blowing sand have been resolved.