Parents opposed to drilling near school want minister involved

Parents in a hamlet southwest of Edmonton are angry that Alberta's education minister has refused to get involved in a dispute over a proposed drilling project near their school.

Parents in a hamlet southwest of Edmonton are angry that Alberta's education minister has refused to get involved in a dispute over a proposed drilling project near their school.

Highpine Energy wants to drill for sour oil near Tomahawk, but some parents are concerned some of the wells will be within three kilometres of the local school, which has 130 students from kindergarten to grade nine.

They worry an accident could release toxic gas, and they want Education Minister Dave Hancock to intervene. 

"His job is to look after our kids, and it's absolutely his job to step in and do something," said Anita Berger, who has two children at Tomahawk School. "If it's not his job who's job is it?"

Earlier this year, they wrote letters to Hancock asking for help.

But Hancock told CBC News on Saturday that he can't interfere in the regulatory process.

"It's up to the ERCB [Energy Resources Conservation Board]. That's exactly [what] their job is," he said.

"Yes, I'm the education minister, and I absolutely care about the safety of students, but that doesn't mean I should interfere in another process that's been set up to examine all the aspects of the situation and make the right decision."

The Tomahawk parents, who have a three-ring binder full of letters they sent to politicians on the issue, said Hancock's response isn't good enough.

"I'm just really tired of the elected officials that do have jurisdiction over this matter, washing their hands of this matter," said Darla Hennig, whose three children attend Tomahawk School. 

Parents not alone in opposition

"The mandate of the education minister is to provide a safe and healthy education for our children, and he's not providing that mandate for our children right now. And if he doesn't step in, that mandate won't be provided for."

The parents are not alone in their opposition to the project. The Parkland School Division intervened in the recent ERCB hearings. The fire chief of Parkland County also expressed his opposition to the plan.

Highpine Energy said the project is safe. The company has drilled almost 100 other wells safely, a company spokesperson said last month.

While Berger, Hennig and others work to stop the drilling, others want to see the project approved.

"Even among my personal family, there's members that are for the drilling and members that are opposed. It's everywhere," Berger said.

Lawrence Strocher, who is involved in the campaign even though he no longer has children at the school, said he's encountered those attitudes as well.

"There are a few people that have said, 'What are you guys doing? You're wasting your time. Let's get back and let's get these oil companies drilling. My job depends on it,'" he said.

"We're in the oilpatch, and a lot of people make their living in the patch and money overrides safety in a lot of cases."

The ERCB will release its decision within the next three months.  The board has already given Highpine Energy permission to start drilling in other areas.

With files from John Archer