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What Lies Beneath: Can a Blue Collar Town Go Green?

written by Kally Groat

Hinton, AB, a town of 10, 000, just 45 minutes east of Jasper National Park, has long depended on industries such as coal mining, pulp and sawmill, forestry, and oil and gas. Even as logging for a pipeline breaks up the vista under the prominent mountain face of Roche Miette, something novel is underway. Latitude 53, a project in conjunction with NovusEarth, will combine geothermal energy and aquaponics to provide food and energy security via a sustainable, year-round greenhouse and seafood harvest.

Imagine a dusty, industrial town with more liquor stores per capita than any other shop. The main highway is scattered with gas stations and runs alongside the Canadian Railway. In the winter, the air is a dry, biting cold, and temps can drop down to -40°C; last summer, in a heatwave, that number swung 80 degrees the other way. Shoulder season is ugly with its brown, muddy grass. The pulp mill smells, so much so that some hotels have signs in their elevator explaining where the broccoli smell is coming from. This is what most passerbies’ see, anyway. 

But my hometown has a foot in two camps: now imagine a small town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. In three cardinal directions, there’s National, Wilderness and Wildland Provincial Parks, with clear streams, vegetated forests, and untouched peaks. You can go into the bush and see no one but wildlife for days. There’s a sense of community here. In fact, there are stories of Hintonites running into each other on their travels near and far – and it’s always exciting. 

I see both versions of this town. 

There is a paradigm shift between generations here. On one hand, industry has been good to us. I don’t antagonize anyone for making a living the way they thought best. It’s easy to see what the draw is: money. Hourly wage as an entry-level mill laborer is more or less equal for a Wildlife Biologist with a Master’s degree and a P. Bio designation. On the other hand, I’m a born tree hugger and think it necessary to progress and explore sustainable options. For myself, coming home after living for years on Vancouver Island where the growing season is longer, composting is a daily habit, and there’s a general attitude of pro-environmentalism, I couldn’t help but feel how behind Hinton was. 

Geothermal has been on the podium for a long time here, due to oil and gas exploration, which in itself is a true irony, as it would reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The Town of Hinton’s website explains that this exploration has, “provided a sense of what lies beneath.” The plan for a 400, 000 sq ft. vertical farming system would use closed-loop geothermal technology, which estimations show will reduce 4.85 million tones of greenhouse gases in the next 50 years. It’s also proposed to have 200 temporary construction jobs and hire on 120 Renewable Resource recruitments.

The NovusEarth website outlines six benefits to aquaponics:
1. Resource Friendly: it can use as little as 1/6 of the water of regular agriculture, with a yield of up to 8x more product. 

2. Healthy: because of the controlled environment, there’s no need for pesticides or chemicals, and the process of using fish waste as fertilizer also takes manufactured fertilizers out of the equation. 

3. Sustainable: as a self-sufficient system that mimics natural processes 

4. Price Security: in 2022 alone, produce has risen 7%. Being a west central, cold-climate town, and the cost of import may be mitigated. 

5. Food Safe: elimination of soil-borne disease   

6. Local: no more out of season produce.  

This exciting project puts food in the hands of the local people and maybe will be a point of pride. That’s how a small town should be. After all, if hydrocarbon exploration has shown us anything, it’s that two ideas can live in the same place at once. What lies beneath might just be our new way of living.