A Proposal to Review the Processes and Policies of the Natural Resources Conservation Board Concerning Confined Feeding Operations
IT IS THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT Alberta Municipalities advocate for the Government of Alberta to complete review through a public hearing of the policies and processes used by the NRCB in the approval of CFOs in order to enhance the transparency and fairness of the process and give all municipalities impacted by the approval a greater voice in the decision-making process.
WHEREAS the province has taken away the right of municipalities to approve Confined Feeding Operations (CFOs) under their Land Use Bylaws and has delegated this responsibility to the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB);
WHEREAS the Agricultural Operations Practices Act (AOPA) specifies conditions that must be considered in the approval process;
WHEREAS the NRCB has established policies that diminish the diligence the Approval Officer must apply in reviewing the compliance of an application for a CFO;
WHEREAS Alberta Environment and Parks does not always provide meaningful input into the approval process when there is a possibility of significant environmental impact; and
WHEREAS significant social, economic, and environmental consequences can result from an approval of a CFO if the Board’s policies are applied without due consideration of the specific requirements of AOPA.
The locations of Confined Feeding Operations have long been a contentious issue because of the social and environmental problems caused by concentrating an abundance of animals in an unnatural setting. As a result, municipal Land Use Bylaws have set a variety of standards with respect to setbacks and exclusion zones. In 2002, the province took away the right of municipalities to regulate CFOs and delegated that responsibility to the Natural Resources Conservation Board, which administers the Agricultural Operations Practice Act. The stated purpose of AOPA is to “ensure that the province’s livestock industry can grow to meet the opportunities presented by local and world markets in an environmentally sustainable manner” (emphasis added).
Under AOPA, the specific responsibility for evaluating CFO applications is delegated to an Approval Officer who is guided by the NRCB policies. If the officer can “tick all the boxes,” i.e., if the prescribed setbacks and other requirements are met, then the project is deemed to be environmentally sound, and it is approved. Other than the local municipality, only “directly affected parties" have a right to present arguments for consideration, and that status is determined by setback distances without consideration for local geographical or environmental conditions. There is no consideration for adjoining municipalities to be considered “directly affected” unless they were successful in getting the issue included in their Intermunicipal Development Plan (IDP). And even though the Approval Officer must deny approval if an application contravenes an affected municipality’s Development Plan, that denial can be overruled by the Board.
This issue could affect any Alberta municipality adjacent to an agribusiness operation, but it is of particular concern to municipalities near a lake fed by a watershed where agricultural operations are carried out.
The NRCB’s Annual Report for 2020-2021 indicates that one of its initiatives was to reduce “red tape” and to speed up the process. The NRCB entered into an agreement with Alberta Environment and Parks whereby NRCB staff would then conduct wetland assessments at proposed confined feeding operations.
It is an admirable goal to advance the growth of the livestock industry, but as with the coal industry, there are many factors that must be considered beyond the “one size fits all” approach the NRCB takes when it considers an application. For example, in southern Alberta, the amount of precipitation is significantly less than that in central and northern Alberta. This means the concern regarding environmental impacts from nutrient runoff is much different between the two locations. Also, the size of watersheds varies greatly across the province, which causes differing environmental consequences. While the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan is now in force with specific requirements for environmental concerns, the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan is still not complete. In its absence, special attention must be paid to environmental impacts in this region. The basic question is why should one business be allowed to have consequential impacts on so many affected parties without their ability to provide input?
At Pigeon Lake, a CFO application is currently under evaluation. Through the public involvement process, the weaknesses in the AOPA Regulations are being exposed at every turn. The AOPA requires a setback of manure storage facilities of only 30 metres from a watercourse, which includes lakes and streams. High levels of nutrients from an existing Intensive Livestock Operation have been measured in adjacent streams, which flow into Pigeon Lake. It appears from other decisions that cumulative effects are not considered.
Whenever a Statement of Concern addressing significant environmental concerns is filed, Alberta Environment and Parks should be required to submit an environmental assessment as the first step in the review process. In the case of the application in the Pigeon Lake watershed, the harmful effects on the lake, which is currently at a tipping point, pose a serious threat to the health of the lake and the economy of the region. A review by the scientists at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is not sufficient in that it is not a true arm’s length investigation.
Adjacent municipalities also should have a greater voice in the decision-making process. Currently the only input they would have been through an IDP with the local county, but only if they have agreed to include exclusion zones. If the county is reluctant to include an exclusion zone or if the issue of CFOs is missed when the IDP is prepared, a CFOs in close proximity to an urban centre could meet all NRCB requirements while threatening disastrous effects on the local economy through a crashing real estate market and deteriorating quality of life. The quality of life for the residents due to persistent odours will suffer, but again, the Board does not consider odours a valid reason for denying approval.
The Municipal Government Act states that one of the five fundamental purposes of municipalities is to foster the well-being of the environment. Improperly situated CFOs can have dire and long-lasting consequences on many environmental features, especially lakes where nutrient loads can result in harmful algal blooms. Another of these stated purposes is to “develop and maintain safe and viable communities” (MGA s3). An odiferous feedlot in the vicinity of a neighboring residential area is in direct opposition to the legislated purpose of a municipality. Therefore, municipalities must have a voice in determining how these business enterprises are approved. This issue could impact each and every municipality in the province.
It is recommended that Alberta Municipalities lobby the province for a public review of this issue with specific attention to how the policies established by the Board have diminished the legislated requirements under AOPA. The overall objective is to adjust the NRCBs policies and procedures, and legislation, if need be, to consider local geographic and environmental factors with the goal of better aligning them with the long-term environmental and economic needs of municipalities and not just the short-term interests of agribusiness. The review must include Municipal Affairs, Alberta Environment and Parks, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, and municipalities, as well as public input.
Respectfully submitted by the Summer Village of Grandview.
Alberta Municipalities is forwarding this resolution to the Government of Alberta and further advocacy would be recommended to ABmunis’ Board by the Sustainability and Environment Committee within the context of related priorities and position.