St. Albert environmentalist Elke Blodgett says a proper environmental assessment would have prevented the power line’s placement near prime bird habitat.

by Hanneke Brooymans
Edmonton Journal, May 2008

ST. ALBERT – The transmission lines hang in layers above the mouth of the Sturgeon River like an empty staff of music.

But the only music Elke Blodgett has ever heard from them makes her shudder.

“When a bird hits one of the wires, it’s like a gigantic guitar string was strummed. It travels all along the line,” she said, pointing into the distance along the line that runs next to Big Lake.

Blodgett, a St. Albert environmentalist, frequently walks under the line that runs straight towards Big Lake and then turns to cross the Sturgeon River. Over the years, she’s lost count of the number of birds she has found under the transmission line.

Last year, she found and photographed enough to make a collage. Blodgett said birds are killed by the impact of the collision, not by electrocution. Electrocution occurs only if the bird is large enough to touch two of the energized lines at the same time.

“It’s hard to say how many hit the line,” Blodgett said, as she watched ducks whiz their way around, over and under the lines. Each time they made it, she sighed with relief.

Many migratory birds travel at night and Big Lake is an internationally recognized stopover for waterfowl.

If a bird hit the line at night, it might get gobbled up by one of the local coyotes, which have learned to walk the lines in search of a midnight snack.

Shortly after she explained this, Blodgett spotted the remains of a coot directly under the transmission lines.

There was a scattered pile of black feathers, a pair of greenish feet with lobed toes and a couple of wings.

Right next to the lines running towards the lake sits a thick, thriving marsh. Red-winged blackbirds trilled and geese honked over the hushed buzz of the transmission lines.

“This is the prime area where not to place a line,” said Blodgett, shaking her head sadly. “It really upsets me that they had so little foresight.”

Blodgett’s campaign to have the lines relocated has resonated with AltaLink, the company that owns the 138-kilovolt line built in 1977.

AltaLink has worked with the City of St. Albert on a number of relocation options for the line since a new viewing platform was recently created in Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park, said Scott Schreiner, external communications manager.

They came up with an option that would cost $900,000 to be shared by the city, the province and ratepayers.

Alberta Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture already gave a $300,000 grant to the city to be spent on the relocation project, said Erin Mikaluk, a ministry spokeswoman.

It’s important that the area around the new park be as “environmentally clean as possible” so visitors have a quality experience, she said. That means moving the transmission line.

“As I understand it, as well there’s also the issue of protecting the wildlife in the area and power lines in any area can make that difficult for birds to land in the lake as well,” Mikaluk said. “That was another consideration as well.”

Both Mikaluk and Schreiner said the initiative is now waiting for the city to determine the best location for the lines.

But the city has run into a snag. The preferred relocation route was along the eastern edge of Ray Gibbon Drive, said Bill Holtby, the city manager. But the city found that it could not put the transmission line in the road-right-of-way. It would have to be set back and, in doing so, it would cross through a future park and through existing soccer fields.

So city council asked administration to report back with feasible alternatives. Holtby expects this to happen in July or August.

How much support there is in the current council for the relocation is questionable. On Monday night, one councillor tried to have the money for the project redirected to offset a tax increase. But Holtby said council hadn’t yet approved money for the project, so that wasn’t possible.

Ideally, Blodgett would like to see the transmission lines buried, but Schreiner said that would be expensive.

Blodgett noted there wouldn’t have been an issue if a proper environmental assessment had been done before they placed the line.

She called the removal of environmental impact assessments on large transmission lines “criminal.”

The provincial government announced last week that transmission projects of over 500 kilovolts would no longer require a formal environmental impact assessment and that it would instead be at the discretion of the environment minister.

Previously, only projects below 130 kVs were exempt and those between 130 and 500 kVs were at the discretion of the department.

Environment Minister Rob Renner said in the legislature: “The issues related to the locating of power lines are not environmental. The issues relate to land planning, they relate to routing, they relate to dealing with public concern. The impact is that we have cement foundations that are poured into the ground to support the towers. That’s the minimal environmental impact I was referring to.”

Blodgett disagrees.

“It’s absurd to say those lines have no impact other than a hole in the ground when you sit here and see the birds die.”

A study completed last year by a University of Calgary master’s student noted that bird collisions are now considered a major impact associated with transmission lines.

Nicole Heck, who now works for AltaLink, quoted a 2001 study by a U.S. wildlife statistician that estimated bird mortality from collisions with power lines is in the range of 130 to 174 million per year in the U.S.

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Elke Blodgett