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Regulator belatedly investigates Peace River oil sands pollution

After years of delay, the Alberta government will finally conduct public hearings into pollution from Peace River's in situ heavy oil sands projects that has forced the eviction of six families, sickened livestock and devalued property.

The province's new Alberta Energy Regulator, formerly the Energy Resources Conservation Board, announced on Sept. 18 that it will hold hearings into "odours and emissions associated with heavy oil operations in the Peace River area."

The panel will look at the sources of the pollution, its impact on local residents and possible technological and regulatory changes needed to clean up the source of the problem.

Many families have already left the region due to chronic air pollution that caused headaches, nausea, skin rashes, memory loss and other symptoms.

Bitumen deposits around Peace River, one of three large deposits in the province, vary greatly in quality, sulfur content and thickness.

Some formations can be recovered by injecting heated and pressurized steam, while others use cold heavy oil production (CHOPS). This doesn't use heat, but pumps bitumen, water and sand to the surface from 600 metre deep deposits.

The ultra heavy oil is then stored in heated tanks where gases can build up. Once vented into the air, toxic fumes can travel for miles. Hundreds of storage tanks can be found in the region.

Steamed bitumen production methods in Peace River, Cold Lake and Athabasca deposits have also created a well-documented hazard known as "aquathermosis" -- a chemical reaction that takes place between the pressurized steam and bitumen.

The reaction can release large volumes of hydrogen sulfide, a potent neurotoxin, carbon dioxide and other gases that can adversely damage worker health as well as the efficiency of the production method. Scientists also know that higher steam temperatures generate greater volumes of toxic gas.

A recent 2012 study in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering noted that "hydrogen sulfide is a major concern due to its toxicity associated with emissions to the environment and impact on processing the produced oil."

A 2010 paper on the process in the Journal of Fuel Processing Technology was even blunter: "Heavy oil recovering and upgrading has been proven to be environmentally unfriendly."

A 2003 Shell Bitumen Handbook notes that bitumen fumes from heated storage tanks can "result in irritation to the eyes, nose and respiratory tract and headaches and nausea" and adds that exposure should be minimized. Moreover, emissions from storage tanks can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as well as hydrogen sulfide, a deadly neurotoxin at even small levels.

Pollutants also change with the quality of heated bitumen stored in the tanks. One Australian study found that measured off-gassing pollutants included polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, chloromethane and acetone.

The regulator says that it has received more than 860 complaints in the region since 2010.

Some companies have improved their waste gas disposal practices, but others continue to abuse the local airshed.    

Emissions from heavy oil extraction and storage facilities owned by Calgary-based Baytex Energy Corp, a heavy oil producer, forced Vivianne Laliberte and her husband to abandon their 85-year-old farm.

"But I don't blame the company," Laliberte told The Tyee a year ago.

"I blame the ERCB (Alberta's energy regulator). They are not doing proper monitoring and are withholding data."

Ian Gates, an expert on oil sands steam production at the University of Calgary, says several things have to be looked at to determine the source of the problem in Laliberte's case.

"The key thing is to look at gas production volumes from Baytex's operation and composition of gas," said Gates in an email. 

"I would gather any air testing data as well and then build a 3D view of the 'plume' of gas from the operation. If it moves regularly through the residences, then folks are being exposed and most likely something needs to be done."

Calgary resident Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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