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Energy company fights order over chemically-tainted Alberta dairy farm

Dairy farmer argued the contamination has destroyed their farm's value

An Alberta energy company is fighting an order to truck water to a family farm the company admits it has tainted with chemicals from its gas plant.

Bonavista Energy acknowledges it is the source of the solvent that has contaminated groundwater on the dairy farm near Edson, Alta. But the company is taking on the powerful Alberta Energy Regulator in the Alberta Court of Appeal over a ruling forcing it to truck usable water to the farm.

"The (regulator) erred by issuing an order that is not objectively justifiable based on the evidence,'' say court documents filed by the company.

In late October, the regulator ordered Bonavista to truck water to the dairy farm owned by Ron and Lonni Saken. Those shipments began immediately and still continue.

The order came after Bonavista's own experts had found high levels of sulfolane–a solvent used in processing sour gas–in the farm's well water. The chemical was traced to a gas plant the company had purchased from Suncor.

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The company drilled new wells. But that water was highly alkaline and had high levels of both methane and flouride.

Milk production cratered. Pregnant cows spontaneously aborted their calves.

The Sakens argued the contamination has destroyed their farm's value. Plans to bring their son into the operation and expand the farm–which has been in the family since 1929–have been cancelled.

But Bonavista argues it has done enough by drilling the two wells, which are free of sulfolane.

"While there have been issues related to bacteria, fluoride, and pH levels in relation to the two new wells, those issues are naturally occurring,'' says Bonavista's argument.

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"Bonavista submits that the fact that there is no presence of sulfolane in the two new wells demonstrates that the (regulator's) order was not required for the purpose of protecting the landowners or the environment.''

The company also argues the regulator has unfairly made any long-term solution subject to approval by the Sakens.

"Granting to the landowners what amounts to a veto power is a denial of Bonavista's legitimate expectation of procedural fairness and a denial of Bonavista's right to natural justice,'' says the appeal.

Lonni Saken said Bonavista's move came days before a scheduled meeting with the company. "I am absolutely shocked that Bonavista would bring a court case against the regulator,'' she said.

Ron Saken said milk production is up and the abortions have stopped since water was trucked in.

"It's quite exciting to milk again–they want to get milked. It's good to see.

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"If I had to go back to that old water, there's no way I would do it. I would quit farming.''

Keith Wilson, the Sakens' lawyer, called the appeal an attack on the regulator.

"This is a company behaving extremely aggressively not only with this family farm, but also with the regulator,'' he said.  "These steps seek to limit the ability of the regulator to enforce Alberta's environmental laws.''

Wilson has filed a request of his own with the regulator that seeks to have the Saken farm declared a contaminated site. That would broaden the regulator's enforcement powers and allow it to go after previous owners of the leaky gas plant, which include Suncor and Shell.

Spokesmen from Bonavista or the Alberta Energy Regulator were not immediately available.

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