Remembering Rumsey Ranch

Remembering Rumsey Ranch: A case study of the pollution of a cattle ranch in the Alberta Foothills; Report on a project in progress by Don Belanger, Arn Keeling, Catherine Kiszkiel, Susan Villeneuve and Carman Bickerton, The History Collaborative Carleton University (Canada) in The London Journal of Canadian Studies 1997 Volume 13
While Hanen was able to force various improvements in the plant operations in the 1970s and the 1980s, plant pollutants had seriously eroded both the environmental purity and property value of the ranch by 1990. Convinced that government and industry were working in tandem to ignore and silence her concerns, Hanen filed suit in 1991 against Esso and the Energy Resources Conservation Board of Alberta for damages to the ranch’s cattle, soil, air and groundwater. While a settlement was ultimately achieved, the much more difficult task of finding ways of remedying, if not restoring the ranch’s environment is underway through the work of the Restoration Action Committee. There are a number of themes at work in the account given in this paper: the regulatory authority’s failure to regulate; political disinterest in redressing that failure; Esso’s refusal to acknowledge the extent of pollution and their strategy of portraying Hanen as a corporate adversary; the insignificance of the community’s role in the dispute; and perhaps most clearly, the utter lack of coherent management of remediation efforts after the groundwater pollution was confirmed in 1986….

Of course, the first thing that should be done is to immediately prevent any more input of contaminants. If the sources are not shut down, the problem will never be fixed. …

The Hanen collection of records indicate that from the 1970s to the 1990s, the Alberta Surface Rights Board (SRB), the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), and the Alberta Department of the Environment were reluctant to acknowledge adverse environmental effects caused by the sour gas industry, and consistently circumvented Hanen’s concerns with the industry’s operations. Although the ERCB and Alberta Environment occasionally showed initiative in addressing the problems, their standards and regulations were violated frequently and without penalty, and their actions to augment controls and to remedy problems were reactive and nominal.

Neither has co-operation extended to public scrutiny into sour gas operations. Hanen’s frustration and anger in dealing with the regulatory agencies, particularly the ERCB, has been shared by many other ranchers and farmers.

The Board itself recently made a similar observation in a 1994 report, which noted, “We were told that too many people feel that they have not been listened to and their concerns do not matter.”

Yet there is increasing discontent among some Albertans. The level of complaint is reflected in annual reports by the Office of the Farmers’ Advocate, a government advisory bureau created in the early 1970’s to aid farmers in disputes with oil companies. The 1995 report records about 2,000-2,500 enquiries by farmers related to the oil and gas industry, more than twice the number reported in the mid-1970s [Annual Reports of the Office of the Farmers’ Advocate, 1975-1995, passim]. This volume of complaint speaks to the growing unease among agricultural producers living in the shadow of the oil and gas industries.

Among these complainants, perhaps the loudest has been one woman, Zahava Hanen. John Ralston Saul has reminded us in his recent [Massey] Lectures that corporate power will soon be an even greater presence in our world than it is now. He argues that the only effective challenge to its abuse of power is the citizen, who maintains an informed vigil and dares to stand fast against intimidation. Hanen’s struggle, then, is emblematic of how this vigilance serves not merely local self-interest, but also the collective interests of the community, society and the environment. [Emphasis added]

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