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Alberta's Tar Sands Pollution Refugees

'Gassed' by oil sands operations, families say they've been forced to evacuate.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 2 Mar 2013 |

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

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.

No regulations

"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.

582px version of bitumen-flare.jpg
Flaring gas and bitumen storage tanks near home Labrecque family says it has been forced to leave. Photo: Daniel Labrecque.

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."

582px version of Baytex-Evacuation.jpg
Residents near Baytex say pollution penetration makes their homes uninhabitable even if off-gassing stopped. Photo: Karla Labrecque.

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.  [Tyee]

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