Group appealing Swan Hills Treatment Centre’s 10 year approval

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

Keepers of the Athabasca, Swan River First Nation, and others are appealing the Swan Hills Hazardous Waste Treatment Centre’s 10-year approval. The deadline for appeal is January 13, 2020.

The plant is in the Swan Hills around 16 kilometres north-east of the Town of Swan Hills and 75 kilometers south-east of Kinuso off Highway 33. It has been in operation since 1985. Suez operates it.

The plant covers a half section (320 acres) with 80 acres fenced off, says a Suez information booklet. It can process 45,000 tonnes of waste per year. Toxic and hazardous waste includes paint and oil, etc.

Keepers of the Athabasca is a group of people who want to protect the land and water which drains into the Athabasca River. It is made up Indigenous leaders, environmentalists, and concerned citizens. Jule Asterisk works for Keepers.

The Athabasca River flows north past Flatbush, Chisholm, Hondo, and Smith about 30 km parallel to the Swan Hills. Some creeks that start in the Swan Hills flow directly into the Athabasca. Others flow north into Lesser Slave Lake. Lesser Slave Lake drains into the Lesser Slave River, which flows into the Athabasca by Smith.

In 2015, Keepers of the Athabasca challenged the treatment centre’s right to operate, says Asterisk. This was based on four questions. Suez hasn’t answered these questions to Keepers’ satisfaction.

Keepers believes that the 30 years of allowable emissions and the fires and explosions, have had an environmental impact, says Asterisk.

There have been three documented large ‘unplanned releases’ in 1996, 1997, and 2009, says the Keepers’ 2015 open letter to Alberta Environement and Parks. These resulted in warnings to not eat wild meat from the Swan Hills. In 1997, this was downgraded to 30 km of the plant. In 2017, despite the 2009 release it was limited to 15 km.

In December, Alberta Environment and Parks approved Suez’s 10-year approval, says Asterisk. Since 2015, they’ve been operating on one-year approvals because of the challenge. The approval overturned Keepers’ challenge. The approval is 65 pages. It isn’t public.

“It’s really awkward doing this (writing the appeals) during the holidays,” says Asterisk. However, she’s working on her own appeal, the Keepers’ appeal, and getting information to other interested parties.

Appeal advisers encourage individuals to file their own personal concerns, as they carry more weight than group appeals, says Asterisk. People interested in appealing the decision can contact Asterisk at

Swan River First Nation on the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake, north of the Swan Hills is appealing the decision, says Asterisk.

In partnership with the Lesser Slave Watershed Council, for the last three years, Swan River has tested the Swan River for metals. The river starts in the Swan Hills west of the plant, and flows into Lesser Slave Lake.

“We feel that the government is not looking for the issues because they own the plant,” says Asterisk. “They research all the way around the issue.”

As part of the 2015 challenge, Keepers and Suez did a study of Lesser Slave Lake, looking for Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), says Asterisk. This was the wrong thing to test for, because when PBCs burn they turn into dioxins and furans.

Dioxins and furans are more toxic than PCBs, says Health Canada.

Keepers plans to do another test this winter for the correct chemicals in the same locations, says Asterisk. They need new samples as the ones used before were destroyed. They’ve found an interested lab and are looking for consultants.

“Low levels of PCBs are found in the environment, and as result, in foods,” says Heath Canada. “The presence of these contaminants in foods and the environment means that everyone can be exposed to very low levels of PCBs. Exposure to these low levels does not appear to affect human health. However, PCBs can accumulate in the human body and remain there for years.”

“PCBs were first manufactured in 1929,” says Health Canada. “By 1977, concern over the impact of PCBs on the environment led to a North American ban on manufacturing and importing PCBs. The ban did not cover PCBs that were already in use in electrical applications. These are being phased out now, and the federal government has set strict regulations for the handling, storage and disposal of PCBs.”

“In some instances, PCBs have been put into specially engineered landfills,” says Health Canada. “Despite strict controls on the handling and storage of PCBs, there remains the potential for accidental releases into the environment.”

There are various safety measures and documentation in place for all aspects from movement, treatment, and ultimate disposal, says the Suez brochure. Incineration, physical, and chemical disposal are used to destroy the waste. Incinerator smoke isn’t released right away into the atmosphere, instead it is trapped and treated to remove harmful chemicals. Things which cannot be burnt safely are chemically treated to become stable and stored in the landfill or deep well.

Environmental scientists on site do tests throughout the site and offsite, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually depending on the test, says the brochure. These include tests of water and emissions tests on the incinerator.

Keepers wants Suez to do environmental testing on a larger area than it currently does, says Asterisk.

Of the four questions, Suez appears to be addressing the one to do with oilfield fracking, says Asterisk. During a meeting with Alberta Environment, Keepers learned that “the plant itself have been shutting down fracking. That was pretty exciting.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines fracking as “the injection of fluid into shale beds at high pressure in order to free up petroleum resources (such as oil or natural gas).”

Jule Asterisk, one of the people appealing the Swan Hills Hazardous Waste Treatment Centre’s 10-year approval.
Swan Hills Hazardous Waste Treatment Centre.
Swan Hills Hazardous Waste Treatment Centre’s incinerator stack and emergency release.

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