Alberta's Tar Sands Pollution Refugees
'Gassed' by oil sands operations, families say they've been forced to evacuate.
Another Alberta pollution scandal has forced as many as six residents from their homes and poisoned scores of other citizens near the Peace River Oil Sands in the northwest corner of the province.
"It's a desperate situation," said Vivianne Laliberte who moved into her son's place last October after being repeatedly "gassed" from emissions from oil sands operations just 5 kilometres from her 85-year-old farm.
"There are a lot of sick people but they don't have the money to move," Laliberte told The Tyee. Her farm is located 48 kilometres south of Peace River.
Emissions from heavy oil extraction and storage facilities owned by Calgary-based Baytex Energy Corp., a heavy oil producer, forced her and her husband to abandon their property.
"But I don't blame the company," added Laliberte.
"I blame the ERCB (Alberta's energy regulator). They are not doing proper monitoring and are withholding data. They are responsible for this going on for years. They have lied to us more than the company. I don't know how they sleep at night."
Greg Melchin, a former Alberta Energy Minister and Tory politician, sits on the board of Baytex Energy.
Darin Barter, spokesman for the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERBC), says the board "continues to take this matter seriously. We have worked directly and frequently with residents, industry and other government agencies on these concerns."
Barter adds that the ERCB has assigned an extra inspector to the region and that "the ERCB is currently examining our regulatory options that may assist in resolving this issue."
But residents, many of whom were recently profiled in a three-part CBC series, say the province has failed to regulate hydrocarbons being vented off of hundreds of bitumen storage tanks in the region.
"There are no regulations on heated bitumen products. The carcinogens coming off those tanks are just crazy," says 50-year-old Carmen Langer, who worked in the industry for two decades.
His ranch, located 27 kilometres north of Peace River, is surrounded by hundreds of wells and hundreds of bitumen storage tanks.
"Three generations built this farm and now industry pollution is taking it away from us," says Langer, who recently sold his cattle. "We're done. I won't sell my home contaminated. We're not that kind of people."
Langer, who calls bureaucrats and politicians every day for action on bitumen vapour recovery, recently presented a $3.8-million bill to the province for land contamination and property devaluation.
"The government is mental not to deal with this situation," said Langer.
But Ian Johnson, an independent scientist with a PhD in chemistry who has advised citizens on the inadequacy of government air monitoring, does not think the government has any interest in regulating.
"Industry isn't contravening any regulations because there are none that I know of. It's a case of colossal mismanagement," explained Johnson.
A FAMILY'S BITUMEN HELL
The family of Alain Labrecque began its descent into bitumen hell in December 2010.
That's when Labrecque, a 36-year-old farmer and logger, began to experience debilitating headaches and periods of dizziness.
"I never had headaches in my life. I couldn't shake them off and then my eyes began to develop a twitch."
One day his wife, Karla, lost her balance and fell down the stairs. Their two preschool-age children would inexplicably fall off their chairs. "The kids were really clumsy."
Four months later the family's symptoms temporarily lifted and the air appeared to be cleaner. But then rank odours wafted across their property again and the headaches and dizzy spells returned.
At that point Labrecque confronted his neighbour, Calgary-based Baytex Energy, located just half a mile south of his farm.
The heavy oil company had been expanding its bitumen field and Labrecque now suspected his family's ill health was due to poisonous vapors from the company's 16 bitumen storage tanks.
"Sometimes the vapours smelled like bitumen and then like the pesticide Round-Up. Others smelt like burning tires," says Labrecque. "They were injecting chemicals and emulsifiers into the tanks because bitumen is so molasses-like."
But the company greeted the family's concerns with outright denial. "They said 'Prove it. It is not us.' They took the bully approach. They are so arrogant."
During the summer of 2011 one company official promised to fix the problem but the poisonous smells returned with a vengeance in the fall. "They didn't fix anything."
By November the fumes were so powerful that the family evacuated their farm and moved into a small rental property. Labreque tried to work on the farm part-time, but the volatile hydrocarbon emissions stuck to his clothes like glue and made the family sick when he came home at night.
A member of the Energy Resource Conservation Board (Alberta's lacklustre energy regulator) told Labrecque this week that low levels of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) had most likely poisoned the family but that the board had no rules for controlling low levels of H2S.
H2S or "dirty gas" is a cyanide-like poison that targets the brain and lungs. Studies have found low-level exposure can cause nausea, vomiting, vertigo and personality changes. Sour gas facilities, due to leaks and spills, have devalued rural property throughout Alberta.
Over the last 40 years dirty gas pollution has forced more than a hundred rural Albertans from their homes, killed more than 35 workers and asphyxiated thousands of cattle and horses.
The production of bitumen can produce as many as 1,400 known pollutants. Most are not monitored by industry or government. But sour gas has proven a major concern in oil sands operations north of Fort McMurray too. At three different industrial monitoring sites levels of hydrogen sulfide pollution have exceeded limits for one hour exposure more than 2,400 times over the last decade. The 24-hour standard has been exceeded more than 400 times.
This year Labrecque abandoned his three-generation family grain farm and moved his family to Smithers, B.C., to breathe clean air.
He says there is only one solution to ongoing bitumen pollution in Peace River.
"They should shut down the tanks and put in a closed-loop system so there are no emissions."
Bitumen deposits around Peace River vary greatly in quality, sulfur content and thickness. Some deposits can be recovered with steam injection while others use a cold production method known as CHOPS. It pumps both bitumen and sand to the surface from 600-metre-deep deposits. The ultra-heavy oil is then stored in heated tanks (up to 120 degrees) where gases can build up. Once vented into the air these toxic fumes can travel for miles.
A 2003 Shell Bitumen Handbook notes that bitumen fumes from heated storage tanks can "result in the 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 (PAH) as well as hydrogen sulfide, a deadly neurotoxin even at 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 PAH, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, chloromethane and acetone.
Her children 'were being poisoned'
Another family gassed by Baytex's operations recently set up their own website documenting their ordeal as environmental refugees in Canada's wealthiest province. (See sidebar)
"I have two young children who I initially thought were going through a clumsy stage related to either a growth spurt or simply due to their age but now I know that they were being poisoned," writes Karla Labrecque on her website.
"My three-year-old looked like he was a ghost most days while my two-year-old would repeatedly lose her balance while sitting and fall off furniture. Since making the difficult decision to leave our farm, both my children have made dramatic recoveries but I can't help but think about what long-term effects they may suffer."
Labrecque, who says she is not a tree hugger or environmentalist, is not lobbying to have Baytex Energy shut down.
"I just want to be able to safely return to my home. I simply ask Baytex Energy to clean up its act, keep their emissions contained in a closed system and to provide all of us with a community in which we can breathe freely."
Ever since tar sand operators increased the scale of their drilling and operations three years ago, residents have complained of a myriad of symptoms -- headaches, disorientation, blackouts leading to bad falls, night sweats, chronic nose and throat irritation, lung congestion, chronic coughing, reduced sense of smell, extreme fatigue and swollen lymph glands.
"We had none of these symptoms before the oil sands operations began in our area," says Laliberte. "Some symptoms clear up within hours of leaving the area, while others take a few days. Some, like our sense of smell, have not returned to normal."
In a 2012 letter to Alberta Premier Alison Redford, Vivanne and Marcel Laliberte wrote that:
"Every breath we take when at home is poisoning us. We believe that the air contaminants have been absorbed into the materials of our home and are retained there. We are in temporary accommodations in Peace River. Promises such as, 'We are working on it' or 'We are hoping for changes at some unspecified time in the future' don't pay our electricity, heating and telephone bills."
Added the letter:
"We are reading Barbara Coloroso's book, The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. We are anxious to get to the part that explains how to get a bully to feel empathy. We are far more interested in building an empathic society, where the well-being of all is paramount, rather than one in which contemptuous bullies rule and the well-being of the shareholder reigns supreme."
Laliberte, who was born and raised in the region, said she has not received a reply from the premier who promoted Alberta's environmental track record in the United States last week.
'Get yourself out of the area'
Laliberte told The Tyee that rural residents who have sought medical help also had trouble finding physicians "who dared look into the matter, fearing repercussions. One person was told by a specialist, 'I can't do anything. Get yourself out of the area.' Another was told, 'I don't want to hear about it anymore. You need a lawyer, not a doctor.' This happened in three different centres in the province."
Johnson, who has criticized air monitoring in the region as fraudulent, has also called the ERCB's response to the pollution totally inadequate in letters to Environment Minister Diana McQueen.
After receiving a pollution complaint on Jan. 4 from rancher Carmen Langer (the rancher has since found dead deer in his yard after pollution events and has now sold all of his livestock), the board initiated its so-called "Peace River Cooperative Odor Complaint Protocol."
It consists of asking heavy oil producers in the region such as Shell, Penn West, Baytex and Murphy to dispatch "staff or agents to check its facilities and review activities from the previous 24 hours." In most cases, such ad-hoc investigations reveal "nothing identified."
In the region, Shell has remodified its storage tanks to capture their toxic emissions while other companies have not.
'Committed to producing oil safely': Baytex
According to the Peace River Record Gazette, the ERCB has responded to more than 600 complaints, 400 inspections and 1,300 investigations in the Three Creeks/Reno area over the last two years with little change in emissions reduction.
Yet the ERCB website makes no mention of these ongoing events and concerns. "We do not post personal information or details around landowner concerns or official complaints on our website for FOIP reasons," explained Barter in an email.
Baytex's website declares that the heavy oil producer believes "in keeping best practices and the needs of our neighbours and partners in mind when operating our business and when sharing a community space."
Andrea Beblow, spokesperson for Baytex Energy, said air quality near Baytex facilities meets Alberta regulations but that "we commissioned a comprehensive air quality study involving landowners, regulatory authorities and other stakeholders."
"Every employee at Baytex is committed to producing oil safely and in an environmentally benign manner," added Beblow in an email.