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Cabinet ministers in bear pit with Alberta newspapers

Coping with a variety of issues related to Alberta’s growth continues to frustrate the provincial government, newspaper publisher and editors were told recently.

Premier Ed Stelmach and a host of cabinet ministers attended the May 6 bear pit session with delegates to the 91st convention of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association (AWNA). Rimbey Review editor George Brown moderated the event.

Delegates grilled the ministers on issues such as power transmission, new schools, water leases, reclaiming brownfield sites, and the employment outlook.

Thomas Lukaszuk, minister of employment and immigration, said Alberta is heading into a “perfect demographic storm.”

“We’re going to have a critical shortage of workers,” he said. Over the next five to 10 years there will be a large exodus of workers “not only in number but in expertise.”

Baby boomers are now retiring and Alberta’s low birth rate alone is not replacing the retirees who are some of the province’s most skilled workers, managers and corporate leaders.

Lukaszuk said the government will enact programs to engage aboriginals, the disabled and women in the workplace, and give mature workers the option of remaining employed past age 65. Immigration will also play a vital role in ensuring there are enough workers to get the job done.

Brownfield cleanup

Cleaning up old gas stations and other contaminated sites is important to the continued growth of rural communities, AWNA president Ossie Sheddy told the government.

He said there is no longer a government program to fund the necessary environmental study and assist in reclamation.

Stelmach said the old program worked well until too many rules and regulations started driving up the costs to landowners and municipalities.

But he said it makes no sense to clean up just one lot when contaminants will leach into neighbouring properties.

Infrastructure Minister Ray Danyluk added the government is looking at new legislation to govern the process and allow municipalities to assume liability for lands they have acquired through unpaid taxes.

More schools needed in Alberta

Danyluk said Alberta needs 30 to 40 new schools right away and up to 100 within the next five years just to accommodate the population today.

“Alberta is growing at what I would consider a rate that needs to be supported by (more) schools and hospitals, and services.”

He cited Airdrie, Chestermere, Beaumont and Fort McMurray as communities who need schools now but the budget for new construction is tight.

The premier added the education budget increased 4.7 per cent for 2011-12 but school boards are being challenged with salary increases and busing costs due to higher fuel prices.

Water systems costly

Responding to a question about municipalities getting a license to draw from the Red Deer River, Stelmach said as government regulations have raised the bar for water quality, municipalities have been hard pressed to upgrade their water treatment systems.

Danyluk added that small municipalities cannot afford to build the systems they need to serve their communities. They need to build co-operative projects to find a suitable water source, treat the water and pipe it to consumers. Some municipalities are abandoning their water treatment systems because their pipes are generations old and “the cost to replace and upgrade is astronomical. They just stop supplying it because people can’t afford it.”

Power to the people

Premier Stelmach said Albertans will pay more for electricity but no one knows for sure how much.

Thirty years ago Albertans consumed one-quarter the power they do today but the transmission lines are now overcharged.

“Did we overbuild or did we build knowing the province is going to grow in the future?”

Stelmach said the government wants to capacity built in the transmission lines to limit the need to build even more lines a few years down the road.

“If we don’t rebuild will we see growth in the economy?” he asked. “Will we see businesses move here not knowing if they have the right amount of energy to build their business?”

The premier said some industrial businesses have to slow their production lines at peak consumption times in the province to avoid outages in their plants.

“What’s the cost of not building? That’s the most significant issue?”

The move to natural gas-fired power plants means lines will need to be upgraded and new lines installed. The government isn’t sold on the benefits of wind power and additional hydro generation needs transmission lines.

As an aside, the premier mentioned BC Hydro wants to raise its rates by 33 per cent over the next three years, 50 per cent over the next five years.

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