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Files on Bitumen Pollution Stolen from Peace River Activist

Carmen Langer says computer, memory sticks swiped from his home last weekend.

Andrew Nikiforuk 8 Aug

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. Find his previous stories here.

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An outspoken critic of air pollution from rapid bitumen development in Alberta's Peace River country says he now fears for his safety after thieves broke into his home last weekend, stealing voluminous files and documents related to industry pollution in the region.

"What will happen next to me?" asks 52-year-old rancher Carmen Langer, who lives about 25 kilometres northeast of the town of Peace River in a community called Three Creeks. Heavy oil projects surround the area.

Langer says the thieves were highly selective, leaving jars of loonies on the table and taking only his computer and memory sticks, which contain various reports and photographs of flares, leaking tankers and oil spills. The RCMP is currently investigating.

The rancher is known for his biting and persistent complaints about air pollution from hundreds of venting and leaking bitumen storage tanks in the region. More than six families have been forced to leave the area due to sour gas pollution and persistent regulatory neglect. Others have sought legal action against one company in particular, Baytex Energy.

Brian Labrecque, one of the families fighting the corporation's venting practices, says his goal is "not to destroy our most lucrative industries," but "to shed light on conditions that shouldn't be permitted to exist anywhere, but especially in a prosperous province like Alberta."

Last winter, the Alberta government agreed to hold a public hearing on the issue, after receiving hundreds of complaints over a two-year period.

In March, the inquiry confirmed what Langer and dozens of other families had documented over the years: that "odours from heavy oil operations in the Peace River area have the potential to cause some of the symptoms experienced by residents; therefore, these odours should be eliminated."

The report also found that the regulator had failed to protect the public interest: "The current regulatory framework does not effectively manage hydrocarbon odours and emissions in the Peace River area."

'Totally shook up'

Langer, who sold all of his cattle last year because of the industry's toxic venting and flaring, says that the government has done nothing to change the level of pollution since the report. "We put so much pressure on these guys but nothing is done... I'm totally shook up. You have to look over your shoulder in a province like Alberta."

Langer is not the only industry critic who has been visited by thieves. On May 17, 2012, someone broke into the house of Jessica Ernst, who is currently suing the government for alleged groundwater contamination on her property.

The thief or thieves left hundreds of dollars earmarked for a trip to the United States on the table. It is not clear what the thieves actually took, but one particular piece of evidence related to her court case went missing.

"It's one thing for thieves, who might be hungry or looking for money, to break into a home. But it's terrifying when it's done to intimidate. I know how Langer feels," says Ernst.

The Alberta government recently set up its own spy agency called the Alberta Security and Strategic Intelligence Support Team (ASSIST), which among other activities collects intelligence threats on oil and gas infrastructure. It recommended in 2012 to the RCMP that an angry mother be charged with making threats to an oil company fracking near her home. The court ruled no conviction, but put the mother on probation for a year.

On Jan. 28, 2014, Langer gave the following testimony to the Alberta Energy Regulator on the pollution in the Peace River area:   

"How can we say anybody here is doing a good job when... the bitumen smell is so strong in your house and in your pillow, in your blankets, in your blinds, in your drywall, your mattress -- everything is contaminated. I live in a contaminated environment."  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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