Landowners seek compensation for no-drill zones

People with mineral rights on land near potash mines and the Bakken oil play say they've been ripped off. Since 1995, a provincial law allows potash companies to ban oil companies from drilling on private farmland near mines. Landowners are seeking compensation

Say province, potash companies rendered mineral rights 'useless'

Today, oil rigs dot the landscape near Rocanville. They stop abruptly along 17,839 hectares of privately-owned farmland, sitting on top of PotashCorp Rocanville's mine.

190 farmers own parcels of that land, as well as mineral rights. They tell CBC they've been cheated.
Potash Corp's mine east of Rocanville was among the first to open in Saskatchewan, in the late 1960s. Mining operations take place 960 metres underground. (Trevor Bearance)

In 1995, the province passed a law, allowing potash companies to restrict drilling on farmland around mines. The Potash Restricted Drilling Areas (PRDAs) cover 72 sections of land around each potash mine. The only place the law was ever publicly noted before it passed was in the Saskatchewan Gazette, a weekly publication of the Saskatchewan legislature, which is available by subscription. 

Landowners in the restricted zones say no one notified them of the change, nor was there any public consultation. They say they've never received any compensation for the lost rights.

Scott Norton said he only learned about PRDAs 11 years later, when an oil company stopped paying to lease land he owned.

"An oil company leased our mineral rights in 2006 and they drilled on a quarter right beside it," said Norton. "And they did hit oil and they were going to develop a well there and all of a sudden they disappeared."

Norton said oil companies have approached PotashCorp, asking for permission to drill on private land above the Rocanville mine. Each time, he said, those requests has been denied.
Over the past few years, drilling rigs have popped up across southeastern Saskatchewan, including this one, 12 kilometres from Potash Corp's mine near Rocanville, SK. (Trevor Bearance)

For years, potash miners near Esterhazy and Rocanville have encountered flooding, deep underground. In a letter dated September 3, 2013, Saskatchewan Energy and Resources Minister Tim McMillan told one landowner "these regulations are needed to ensure drilling operations do not risk infrastructure and workers' safety."

Normally when you take people's rights away, you pay them for it.- Scott Norton,chair, Rocanville PRDA Committee

Norton said he understands the need for safety. But, he said, the PRDAs effectively make private mineral rights "worthless".

"Every freeholder should have got letters that was affected," Norton said. "Normally when you take people's rights away, you pay them for it."

He's since joined forces with other landowners, to press the government of Saskatchewan for compensation. Their efforts included meetings with government officials, resolutions passed by the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, and launching a class-action lawsuit in 2010. The group eventually agreed to abandon the lawsuit. 

To date, Norton characterizes their efforts as 'futile'.

Trevor Bearance also lives near Rocanville, on land his family has farmed for more than 100 years. 

"The complaint for most of us is not that the PRDAs have been imposed," said Bearance. "It's simply that they were imposed rather sneakily. And they were imposed without any compensation."

Bearance said potash companies also some bear responsibility. He said more transparency is necessary, and said an all-party legislative committee should study the issue, if not a public commission or inquiry.

"This never should have played out as long as it has. And everybody has used excuses all along the way to rationalize doing nothing," said Bearance.

Government officials refused to comment on the case Friday, saying the case was still before the courts.

The Mosaic Company had no comment on the matter. 

A spokesman for Potash Corp of Saskatchewan said he was seeking further information, noting drilling restrictions also exist in cities and towns.

There are some very bitter people- Trevor Bearance, landowner

"It's really a provincial issue in the sense that it's the same rules around every mine site," said Bill Johnston. 

Bearance said the longstanding dispute has left a sour taste, for many landowners in his area.

"It makes for bad relations with potash companies, to be honest," said Bearance. "There are some very bitter people."


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