Federal minister denies water testing allegations made by Sask. government

Canada's environment minister is denying allegations made by the Saskatchewan government that federal scientists purposely trespassed and were testing water samples for nitrates or nutrients related to farm runoff.

Sask. government raised concerns in public letter, day after changing trespassing rules

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault says the Saskatchewan government is mischaracterizing the work of federal scientists testing water in the province. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Canada's environment minister is denying the Saskatchewan government's allegations that federal scientists purposely trespassed on private farmland and were testing water samples for nitrates or nutrients related to farm runoff.

On Sunday, Saskatchewan Minister Responsible for the Water Security Agency Jeremy Cockrill posted a public letter to federal Minister for Environment and Climate Change Canada Steven Guilbeault.

Cockrill said the province was aware of federal employees trespassing to collect water samples in Pense, Mossbank and Pilot Butte.

He said producers had told the government the federal workers were testing for nitrates and pesticides, but no proof of that claim was provided.

Cockrill called it "covert testing."

On Wednesday, Guilbeault sent a letter back to Cockrill denying the allegations. He said the provincial government is perpetuating misinformation by claiming scientists were testing for nitrates or nutrients related to farm runoff.

"I believe that we, and Canadians, are best served when we engage on the facts— not heated and misinformed rhetoric," Guilbeault wrote.

Guilbeault made reference to some of the rhetoric that has been used around the federal government's proposal to reduce fertilizer-related greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent, which has led to criticism by some farmers and politicians.

In July, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe tweeted, "the same federal government who alienated our oil and gas industry is now putting global food security at risk by attacking the hard-working agriculture producers across Western Canada with an arbitrary goal to reduce fertilizer usage."

"The claims made in the media about this incident compound other recent misinformation regarding the voluntary nature of the fertilizer emission reduction goals, mischaracterizing work that is voluntary, unregulated and being done in partnership with Canadian farmers to reduce emissions, not fertilizer use," Guilbeault wrote.

Guilbeault said Cockrill's letter was "openly speculating about the work of these scientists."

"Departmental officials are not testing water for nitrates or nutrients related to farm runoff, and their study is not related to the non-regulated, voluntary goals of the Government of Canada in an effort to reduce emissions from agricultural fertilizers."

The province has not provided an explanation for the "activity" reported in Mossbank or Pilot Butte.

Jeremy Cockrill, right, the minister responsible for Saskatchewan's Water Security Agency, posted a letter to his federal counterpart asking for an 'explanation' regarding federal workers allegedly on private land in the province. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

As for the trespassing allegations, Guilbeault said that on Aug. 11, water scientists were taking samples near a highway in Pense on behalf of Health Canada. Guilbeault said a landowner told the scientists they were on private land.

"If a federal scientist inadvertently encroached on private land without permission, this matter can surely be handled in a mature and informed manner," Guilbeault said.

"As a measure of good faith, Environment and Climate Change Canada is reviewing its sampling protocols to ensure they are consistent with area laws before doing any further sampling."

The federal government said it has no record of any trespassing in Mossbank and Pilot Butte, as was alleged in Cockrill's letter.

Guilbeault said the federal government has been testing water quality for 50 years.

"There are strict protocols in place that scientists must follow to ensure any water sampling is done in compliance with provincial and territorial laws."

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the provincial government said they had received reports of "activity" in Pense, Mossbank and Pilot Butte.

The spokesperson said one of those reports included that "federal employees on-site near Pense indicated that they were testing for pesticides/nitrates. While this does not align with public statements made by Environment and Climate Change Canada, it should be noted that ECCC has still not stated what they were testing for."

Sask. government amends trespassing law the day before sending letter to feds

On Friday — eight days after the alleged trespassing — Levi Wood, former president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association posted a photo on Twitter of two people outside a Government of Canada vehicle.

"Anyone else see a Government of Canada SUV taking water samples from your dugouts? They said they were 'checking for pesticides,'" wrote Wood, who is from Pense.

CBC reached out to Wood for comment on Monday but did not receive a response.

On Saturday, Saskatchewan's cabinet approved an order in council tweaking the province's trespassing laws, the Trespass to Property Act 2022, "to add a new section regarding the Act and state that 'person' includes the Crown in right of Canada."

The act came into force in January. It says a person who repeatedly trespasses on the same property can be fined up to $25,000 and jailed for up to six months, while a corporation involved in a trespassing offence could be fined up to $200,000. 

In November 2021, Premier Scott Moe said the new law is not intended to affect "people that are legitimately, maybe accidentally, trespassing," but will hopefully cut down on theft and vandalism.

A spokesperson for the province said the Crown was exempt under the trespass act because exemptions are for emergency purposes.

"Clearly, accessing private land for water sampling is not an emergency. In light of that, the amendment was made."

The province did not answer a question about why the order in council was made on a weekend.

On Tuesday, Opposition Agriculture critic Trent Wotherspoon said the timing of the changes to the trespassing act is "highly questionable." He also criticized the province's handling of the issue.

"From this premier these days, it seems to be more about spin and distraction as opposed to actually engaging in a meaningful way, in a substantive way with the actual facts," Wotherspoon said.

Guilbeault said the federal government is reviewing the recent changes to the act.

"Federal officials look forward to working with Saskatchewan officials to better understand recent Order in Council rule changes, so that the important work of scientific water data analysis can continue," Guilbeault wrote.

Read Minister Steven Guilbeault's letter:

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with files from CBC News


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