by Rebekah Benoit
Winter lasts a long time in Fort McMurray. During the interminable months of ice and snow, Beacon Hill resident Leanne McAmmond dreams of summer and time spent in her vegetable garden. When the warm months of July and August roll around, the carefully tended patch features neat rows of crisp lettuce, curling pea vines, feathery beet tops, broccoli and cauliflower.
But this year, McAmmond fears for her vegetable garden. A few days before Christmas, McAmmond left her home to run errands, and returned to a sight that first shocked, then infuriated her.
“I came home and found an awful pile of snow in my yard,” McAmmond says of the massive pile of dirty brown snow dumped in her front yard on December 21. “It’s a big muddy disaster. The city is trying for all of this beautification, making Fort McMurray a nice place to live, and then they dump all this dirty, muddy snow in my yard.”
On December 16, city council approved an improved snow plowing process to take effect next year. This enhanced snow removal will see weekly plowing of snow in residential areas, a service many residents have been requesting for years. But part of the plan involves dumping that snow on boulevards, green spaces and residential lawns, an action that the municipality implemented for the first time in the waning days of 2014. The accumulation of the white stuff on residents’ lawns has some in Fort McMurray seeing red.
“My biggest concern is flooding in the spring. Where is this water going to go?” asks McAmmond. “I just finished renovating my basement because of water damage. I don’t want to have to do it again.”
McAmmond is also worried about the chemicals and silt contained in the dirty snow, and the potential for contamination of her vegetable garden and lawn. “The RMWB tells me they don’t use salt in residential areas, and that the grass under the snow will come back in the spring, but I’ve lived here long enough to know that where they dump snow, only weeds come back,” McAmmond says.
McAmmond is not alone. Timberlea resident Colleen Wiebe saw an identical pile of snow pushed onto her lawn this past weekend, and shares similar concerns about what will happen when the snow melts.
“I just happened to look out my window and saw a Bobcat pushing a big pile of snow onto my lawn,” Wiebe says. She says the Bobcat operator told her he was moving snow onto her lawn at the municipality’s direction. “He says he’s received numerous complaints and people yelling at him,” Wiebe adds. “I’m not surprised – people are livid over this.”
Wiebe’s lawn received a similar dump of snow to McAmmond’s, a dirty brown pile she estimates at more than five feet high and ten feet across, littered with dirt and bits of trash from the street.
“What an eyesore,” she says. “I’m not allowed to shovel my snow onto the street, so what gives the city the right to push snow from the roadway onto our yards? I take pride in my lawn – I mow my grass, plant flowers, trim my trees and hedges. And now there are all kinds of contaminants in that snow, dripped from people’s vehicles, there’s garbage from the street – what’s going to happen when all that snow melts onto my lawn? Who’s responsible for the cleanup?”
She wants to know why some residents have large amounts of snow from the street pushed onto their lawns, while other yards remain untouched. “Why are some people getting preferential treatment?” she asks. “You drive around my neighbourhood and some yards have absolutely nothing in them, while other people have huge piles. It seems discriminatory to me.”
Wiebe is also concerned about the safety hazard those enormous piles of snow represent, from the melting and freezing that will result in an ice-covered sidewalk to the potential injury to school children who might be tempted to slide on the icy pile. “I don’t budget for enough salt to keep that sidewalk free and clear,” Wiebe says.
Her home is very close to the area’s two elementary schools and every morning streams of children pass her house on their way to school. “The kids who live a couple doors down, who are such sweethearts, have already wanted to slide down the pile, as any kid would,” Wiebe says. “It’s very tempting for children, and that pile creates an extreme safety hazard.”
Wiebe worries too about the possibility of hitting a pedestrian or an oncoming car as she backs out of her driveway, because the snow pile impedes her visibility of the street.
She adds that the feedback she’s heard from neighbours has been entirely negative. “A lot of people are very angry and upset over this,” she says.
The RMWB says that the recent snow plowing, which saw a big accumulation of snow built up since the season’s first snowfall, is not indicative of the enhanced snow removal service which will begin next year. Under the city’s current snow removal program, residential streets do not receive any snow plowing unless the area receives a very heavy dump of snow, upwards of 20 centimeters in a single snowfall. Robert Billard, a manager with the RMWB’s Roads department, explains.
“So far this year, we hadn’t met any of the triggers associated with snow plowing or removal in residential areas, and the warm weather we’ve had resulted in a fair bit of rutting throughout residential areas. We’ve received a lot of requests to come in and start plowing,” Billard says. “Because we’ve had several weeks of snowfall without plowing taking place, that resulted in a fair bit more snow being plowed. This is not what’s going to be happening next year.”
The plan set to begin in 2015 will see weekly removal of snow in residential areas with parking bans in effect. Billard says he understands that residents are concerned about having large piles of snow placed on their lawns, but adds that, with weekly plowing and regular removal of snow to approved snow dumps around the city, residents won’t see such large amounts of snow dumped on their properties.
Billard says that the municipality will pile snow on boulevards and green spaces first, with residential lawns and right-of-ways being used only when such alternatives aren’t available.
“We’ll utilize other spaces first – if one side of the road has a green space or has driveways along one side and lane homes on the other, we’ll try to find the best spot to put [the snow] without creating any problems,” Billard says.
He adds that the concerns about dangerous chemicals leaching into lawns and vegetable gardens, as well as concerns about potential flooding, are not likely to cause real issues come spring.
“We don’t use sand or sodium chloride in residential areas unless there are unsafe conditions, and then we’d use a bit of sand around places like intersections,” Billard explains. “But all of our sand uses a very light concentration of calcium chloride. We use 15 litres per tonne, just enough to keep the sand from freezing. When you look at it, it’s a very minimal amount.”
Billard says that the RMWB plans to test the snow dumped on green spaces and lawns to ensure that chemical levels are minimal.
The risk of flooding is also low, Billard says, as the RMWB only plans to pile snow on the edges of lawn, not close to the houses themselves. “In terms of flooding, the snow on the roofs of houses and piled close to the houses would be the real concern, but if there are any drainage issues, we will open up some of the snow windrows to get any drainage that needs to get out into the catch basins,” he says.
McAmmond and her neighbours aren’t convinced. “[The RMWB] told me they were only going to plow the snow onto the right-of-way in front of my house, but that pile of snow started 18 inches from the sidewalk and carried 10 feet into my yard,” she says. “They claim that next year, when they’re plowing it weekly, there will be a lot less snow, but my math isn’t that bad – by the end of the winter, I’m still going to have a 10 foot pile of snow, and where is all that contaminated water going to go?”
Wiebe is also less than impressed by the RMWB’s assurances. “[The RMWB] told me they would assess any problems ‘in the spring,’” Wiebe says. “So when I have rotten grass in the spring and my neighbours are complaining that my yard is an eyesore, who is going to be responsible for that?”
Billard says that, while he has heard from a few residents concerned about the new plan, there have been many others happy with the idea of regular snowplowing. “Some people don’t like the idea, but others have been asking why the snowplows never come into their subdivisions. We’re trying to provide a better level of service to those residential areas by having roads that people can actually drive down, whether they’re driving a pickup truck or a small car,” he says.
McAmmond has contacted the municipality with her concerns. “I spent a whole bunch of money putting brickwork around my garden and replacing the dirt with good manure,” McAmmond says. “I want them to reconsider what they’re doing and stop putting the snow on our lawns.”