Oil company appeases relieved gardeners

EDMONTON — It was a battle between a group of gardeners carrying spades and pitchforks and a giant pipeline company lining up their bulldozers.

In the end, the little guys with the green thumbs won.

Plains Midstream Canada has backed off its plans to start construction of a pipeline in north Edmonton that would have destroyed a summer’s worth of work by some community gardeners. The company says it will now wait until Oct. 1, giving the group enough time to harvest their bounty.

“It was never ‘I want to win against the big guy.’ I was more concerned about the people here and their needs,” Francisco Huezo said Wednesday while surveying the remaining green leaves sprouting from dirt plots.

Huezo said his parents helped start the garden through the Wecan community co-op on the northern outskirts of Edmonton 20 years ago. They wanted to help low-income, immigrant families grow their own food, with some produce going to churches and the Edmonton Food Bank.

Last week, co-op staff told him construction of an oil pipeline bordering the garden was going to destroy at least a third of it.

On Tuesday, bulldozers were scheduled to rumble through the garden. Dozens of people hunched down in the cold rain to salvage some of their vegetables. Huezo pulled out his potatoes, carrots and cucumbers then gave them all to charity.

But that night, he learned Plains Midstream had decided to delay the work.

Huevo said his 83-year-old mother, who spent days crying about the pending destruction, is now happy again. And the other gardeners are relieved they won’t be losing their food.

“It’s the story everybody likes to hear,” said Huezo.

He said he still has some beans, cabbage and zucchini left in the garden. “Hopefully that will mature and we can take it to the food bank as well and give it to people in need.”

NDP MLA Deron Bilous, who represents the riding, helped the gardeners protest the construction. He scolded the province for approving construction without thinking about the timing of harvest.

The company’s change of heart will hopefully show other community groups they can also win their battles, Bilous said.

“They can speak out and it does make a difference. This is democracy in action.”

The province, which leases the 2 1/2 hectares of land to the garden group, helped broker the deal.

“We wanted to make sure that (the gardeners) could continue to do the good work that they have done,” said Sharon Lopatka, a spokeswoman with Alberta Infrastructure.

She said the pipeline construction should be complete by early next year so the entire garden can be planted again in the spring.

Plains Midstream has agreed to clean up the site and replace its topsoil once the pipe is buried underground, she said.

Huevo may be celebrating the victory but said he’s still leery of both the company and the government and is not sure the land will look the same next season.

“I’m still waiting to see what it’ll look like when it’s done. Is it really sustainable or is it lip service?”

The province said it warned the gardeners last year about the pipeline, but Huevo said that’s nonsense. The 70 families that make up the group have spent several hours each week for more than two months tending to their veggies.

“Why would you plant if you know it’s going to be destroyed two months later? It makes no logical sense.”

He warned that people need to keep careful watch on pipelines as they pop up across the country.

“If they’re going to be built, then let’s make sure they’re done responsibly, not at the cost of people, water, environment, food.

“This should matter to Canadians. If we keep on destroying with no regard for society … we’re not going to have much left.”

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