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Another Alberta Family Flees Oil Sands Pollution

Mother who left her Peace River region home behind could 'smell the bitumen.'

By Andrew Nikiforuk 22 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 family has abandoned their home due to air pollution from bitumen drilling and storage facilities in Alberta's Peace River region.

Thera Breau, a 36-year-old physiotherapist and mother of four young boys, says she moved her family to central Alberta this week and won't be coming back.

"I see the health effects on my boys, the tremendous traffic on the roads and I can smell the bitumen."

Air pollution from heated bitumen storage tanks owned by Calgary-based Baytex Energy just south of the town of Peace River is said to have sickened dozens of people and already forced at least six families to leave their homes over the last two years.

Powerful and rank emissions from bitumen storage tanks and land farming of petroleum wastes northeast of Peace River in the Three Creeks area have also resulted in persistent health complaints from scores of local farmers.

Breau said the decision to move was hellish and difficult. She suspected bitumen pollution when symptoms of ill health disappeared from her four boys when the family left Peace River for six weeks over the Christmas holidays.

But the stomach aches, eye problems and open wounds recently reappeared on her boys this March just as oil sands activity resumed.

"On March 17, tanker traffic increased significantly," Breau told The Tyee.

"The next morning when going out to wait for the school bus, the air smelled moderately of bitumen emissions and my son's eye was twitching so severely that he had a tantrum.

"The baby's wound kept getting worse and I know Baytex was not at full production capacity yet. I made the decision to remove my kids."

Greg Melchin, Alberta's former energy minister, sits on the board of Baytex Energy.  

Ever since oil 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.

Karla and Alain Labrecque, former neighbours to the Breau family, moved their family to B.C. last year but set up a website documenting their status as environmental refugees.

"After finding just how toxic our home had become, we had little choice other than to move away from our farm," writes Karla Labrecque in an open letter on the website.

"I could not allow my children, my husband, or myself to live in an environment full of poisonous gases that Baytex Energy and the Alberta government claim to be 'within regulation,' (which, by the way, were set for light oil production not heavy oil production)."

'Odour problem' will be fixed: energy minister

Thera Breau's now abandoned home sits in the Jean Cote/Reno area just several miles from Baytex facilities. Since 2009 the company has quadrupled bitumen production on its nearby leases from 5,000 barrels to 20,000 barrels a day.

The company's thermal bitumen production method, which steams bitumen out of the ground, industrializes the landscape and requires as many as 32 wells per section with 50 metre inter-well spacing.

Baytex Energy, which temporarily slowed down activity this year, is now doing a study on local air pollution. Peace River MLA Frank Oberle admitted to the Peace River Gazette last week that "there is a serious odour problem and the question is what are we going to do about it."

Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes reportedly told Oberle that he is not happy about the situation and that "the odour problem" will be fixed.

Yet residents say their complaints about worsening air pollution in the region have fallen on deaf ears for years. Moreover, they charge that effective regulations to control pollutants vented off hundreds of bitumen storage tanks simply don't exist.

Ultra-heavy bitumen extracted from 600-metre deep deposits (the province's third largest) is routinely stored in heated tanks (120 degrees) in rural areas where volatile gases build up. Once vented into the air these toxic fumes can travel for miles downwind.

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." 

It adds that exposure should be minimized. Moreover, emissions from storage tanks can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) as well as hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a deadly neurotoxin even at small levels.

A proposal to turn the nearby town of Falher into a rail collection point for shipping bitumen has also raised more concerns about the impact of pollution and H2S odours on two schools and an old people's home located just 500 metres away.

Breau, who moved to the region 10 years ago, says that testing on hair samples from her children revealed that many of their essential elements "were out of whack" after years of low-level exposures. Two of her boys have experienced poor and immature speech development.

When Breau asked public health officials to act on the situation, she says they told her it was up to industry's goodwill to get it fixed.

The Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) says it now takes pollution in the region "seriously" and is reviewing its legislation on bitumen storage tanks.

Effects of bitumen fumes hazy

Alberta, home to three major bitumen formations including the Athabasca deposit in Fort McMurray, is a hydrocarbon plantation where the government secures 30 per cent of its revenue from oil and gas extraction. Yet the government has failed to balance its budget for five years in a row.  

Whenever rural citizens and First Nations raise concerns about effects of rapid development on human health, groundwater and livestock, they say that they are often bullied, marginalized and ignored.

Given that resource development effectively pays one-third of the wages of teachers, hospital workers and public servants, many Tory politicians believe that citizens no longer have the right to question the pace and scale of development.

"Alberta's culture with oil and gas is strange," admits the New Brunswick-born Breau.

One of her relatives even called Breau an "extremist" for raising concerns about the impact of heavy oil fumes on her children's health. (Children are much more susceptible to low levels of pollution than adults.) "No one wants to talk about it."

Adds Breau: "What surprises me is that the government doesn't seem to care.

"Now we'll try to sell the house, but who do you sell to?"

Studies on road workers exposed to bitumen fumes say long-term health effects can include cancer, reduced lung function and DNA damage. Bitumen fumes contain known carcinogens including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and benzene.

But methods for sampling bitumen fumes remain limited.

A 2004 World Health Organization study on bitumen fumes reported that health effects are understudied, serious and complex.

Workers exposed to fumes can suffer from a variety of respiratory and skin ailments. But symptoms in the general population have not been studied well.

Concluded the WHO report: "What is clear is that asphalt fume condensates produce malignant skin tumors in mice; and that, when exposed to airborne concentrations of asphalt or asphalt fumes and vapors, workers report symptoms of irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat and, in some, lower airway changes and demonstrate metabolism of the chemical constituents of asphalt fumes and vapors. Taken as a whole, these results suggest that effects do occur in mammalian systems and that the limitations or uncertainties should not preclude taking steps to manage human exposures."

Due to more than 600 complaints, the ERCB says it has conducted 529 on site inspections in the Three Creeks area, and 193 on site inspections in the Reno area since Jan. 2012.  [Tyee]

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