When the Alberta government ghosts you

‘What do you want to do for this media request?’ a provincial government staffer asked his colleague. The answer, it seems, was a whole lot of nothing

Remember when I told you about the Jessa family and their decades of headaches ever since discovering the land they bought was contaminated by a gas station leak?

Well, it turns out their property is among nearly 5,000 in Alberta that could be contaminated by petroleum storage tanks. But getting more information on the scale of the contamination issue and the risks these sites could pose to human health hasn’t been easy — and part of the reason for that may be that government officials are just as out of the loop as the rest of us.

“The 5,000 number really surprised me,” Jason Penner, a communications advisor with Alberta Environment and Parks, wrote in an email to a colleague after The Narwhal’s Prairies reporter Drew Anderson inquired about the issue

Alberta does have a database to track these sites, but it fails to offer a clear picture of just how many are actually contaminated. The government can’t — or won’t — say how many sites have actually been assessed for possible contamination.

When Drew inquired about it, government employees stonewalled him.

A copy of an email from government staffer Jason Penner to a colleague: "What do you want to do for this media request? The topline numbers are that Alberta has approximately 8,000 contaminated sites and approximately 5,000 of those are from gas stations. The 5,000 number really surprised me."

“What do you want to do for this media request?” Penner asked his colleague.

It appears what to do about the request was, ahem, nothing. 

“They just literally ghosted me,” Drew says.

“I left a voicemail with Jason Penner which said I’d even love to just have a background chat with experts or a technical briefing or anything, just to try and make sure the numbers are right. But, nothing. No response.”

But Drew didn’t stop there. He found another way to figure out what they were talking about privately: by filing a freedom of information request for copies of all the emails they exchanged after receiving his questions. 

Government fees for these access requests can add up — they start at $25 each in Alberta — but thanks to the support of The Narwhal’s members, we are able to allocate a chunk of our budget toward them so our reporters can file as many as necessary across the country.

Drew’s latest piece on contaminated sites definitely won’t be his last. Stay tuned for more on this and other discoveries we unearth from government communications that impact the lives and livelihoods of Albertans like the Jessas.

Take care and don’t ghost,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience

Inside The Narwhal

Lindsay Sample, pictured here on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) territory. Photo for The Narwhal by Alia Youssef
Lindsay Sample joins The Narwhal as the B.C. bureau lead after a decade of working to support a more sustainable and equitable media ecosystem. Photo: Alia Youssef / The Narwhal

“It’s the opportunity to constantly learn and contribute to changing the way things are done that makes me stoked to show up to work every day,” Lindsay Sample says.

No, Lindsay, *we’re* stoked you signed on as our B.C. bureau lead to help raise our journalism to the next level.

From working as a whitewater guide in Mexico to overseeing an expansive data journalism project on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Lindsay has done it all. One theme that runs through everything she does is building connections: “It’s all about relationships — with your colleagues, with your readers, with the public, with yourself.”

In this Q&A, Lindsay talks about how her understanding of “serious” journalism has changed, the plans in the works for our B.C. bureau (hint: more reporters!) and a dog named Goose.

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Despite local businesses taking a hit on money owed to keep the Vista coal mine running, many are relieved the mine isn’t shutting down for good. Read more.

Ontario’s Halton region votes against developing 5,000 acres of farmland

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The decision flies in the face of the Ford government, which has pushed to open up more land for development, and is promising to increase housing supply ahead of this spring’s election. Read more.

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GIF of a dog ducking under a sofa

When a communications staffer goes MIA after you’ve sent over requests for comment. Tell your friends The Narwhal’s newsletter is a no-ghost zone.

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The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism.