3 weeks, 3 accidents: rural Alberta hamlet concerned about safety of lone highway

After three truck accidents in less than a month, some Anzac residents say they are worried about the safety of the only highway in and out of the northeast Alberta hamlet. 

“There’s an influx of trucks on this highway and something needs to be done,” said Julie Stewart, captain of the Anzac Volunteer Fire Department. 

Stewart says the three separate tractor-trailer incidents all temporarily shut down Highway 881.

While no injuries were reported, Stewart says rollovers are a safety concern, not only for drivers, but for all of Anzac and its neighbouring communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

When the road gets blocked, emergency services can’t pass through. 

“We were actually unable to provide care to our community and other sister communities. Our trucks were on the other side of the accident,” said Stewart. 

“We’ve been given a blessing three times and nobody was hurt, so let’s get ahead of that.”

Julie Stewart, fire captain for the volunteer fire department, said something needs to be done about the highway. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

The accidents have reignited concerns about the highway, from narrow lanes to limited shoulders. New issues are on the horizon too, with a large industrial project expected to add hundreds of trucks to the highway every day when it opens next spring, a town councillor says. 

But the provincial government says multi-million dollar improvements to the highway, set to be complete by 2025, will help alleviate those problems.

‘The vehicles are just flying by’

Darryl Woytkiw, president of the Willow Lake Community Association, said two of the rollovers shut the highway down for several hours, stranding some kids at school. 

An Anzac resident for 25 years, Woytkiw says he has never seen this many consecutive accidents. 

The narrow highway should be repaired or widened, he said.

“We don’t want to be attending to accidents where it’s families that are hit by these trucks and that could very easily happen. I’m hoping the province steps in,” said Woytkiw. 

Darryl Woytkiw said kids had to stay at school while crews cleaned the roads after the incidents. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Bernice Virginia Cree, who lives on Fort McMurray First Nation 468 near Anzac, can see the highway from her porch. Members of her motorcycle club will call to ask about the road conditions before setting off for Anzac. 

“You can see right across the way here, the vehicles just flying by,” said Cree. 

“It is quite dangerous for the motorcycles.”

She would like to see the province widen the highway or RCMP increase speed-limit enforcement.

“Our safety matters,” said Cree. 

Project could exacerbate highway problems, councillor says

Coun. Jane Stroud said she’s worried a major industrial sulphur project, slated to open next spring, will only exacerbate the highway issues.

Stroud said the Keyera Project, about 30 kilometres south of Anzac, could add 500 trucks to the highway every day. 

“I’m extremely concerned,” said Stroud. “The deterioration on that highway will be excessive.” 

The Anzac fire captain says tractor-trailer rollovers temporarily shutting down the rural hamlet’s lone highway are an increasing safety issue. (Submitted by Thomas Bergevin)

She said council passed a resolution on May 11 to write to Transportation Minister Ric McIver about the project’s impact. That meeting was scheduled for June, but Stroud said the minister’s office recently cancelled. 

McIver’s press secretary Jenn Henshaw said the government announced $52-million upgrades in March 2020. The construction is expected to be finished by 2025. 

Upgrades will include 14 passing lanes, an oversized truck staging area and improvements to roadside turnouts. 

But residents say that does little to help with safety concerns now. 

Keyera Energy’s application to the ministry included a traffic impact assessment, Henshaw said in an emailed statement. The assessment, she says, concluded the project impact would not require highway improvements. 

As for consultation, Henshaw says no statements of concerns were lodged with the Alberta Energy Regulator about Keyera’s application during a mandated 30-day public feedback period. 

Kirsten Bell, manager of Communications for Keyera, said the company consulted with First Nations, local Métis nations, the Willow Lake Community Association and Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo from 2019 to 2020. 

“The safety of communities in the area is of utmost importance to Keyera,” Bell wrote in an email. “We remain committed to working closely with our customers and transportation contractors to ensure all travel along Highway 881 is done in a safe and responsible manner.” 

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