Residents, industry face off over Alberta oilsands health concerns

Signs near Peace River in August 2013. Local residents are concerned about the health impacts of the nearby oil development. Global News

After years of enduring what they say are health problems related to nearby oil and gas development, residents of Three Creeks and Reno, Alberta are getting the chance to formally air their grievances.

On Tuesday the Alberta Energy Regulator begins a hearing process examining odours and emissions from heavy oil operations in the Peace River area. The panel could come up with recommendations that may include changes to regulations.

There’s minor furor over reports local doctors are reluctant to draw direct links between health problems and the oilsands.

But one family’s already seeking a swifter solution.

The Labrecques have filed for an injunction against their oil-producing neighbour, Baytex Energy Corporation, to force the company to stop operating 86 storage tanks near their properties for eight months. The injunction application will be heard March 19.

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In the meantime, “we were happy that the inquiry was called so that we could hopefully get some answers, get to the bottom of this,” said Brian Labrecque, who owns land in the area.

“At the end of the day we hope that it brings about regulatory changes and we can see some changes so that others don’t need to go through what we’ve been experiencing.”

Baytex, for its part, says it follows the rules and its operations aren’t making people sick.

Labrecque doesn’t live near the oil facilities himself. He lives in the nearby town of Falher. He’s involved mostly because of his father, Michel.

Michel left his Reno home in April 2012 because, Brian said, emissions from nearby oil tanks operated by Baytex were making him sick.

“We honestly thought that he had a terminal illness. He lost a lot of weight. I think he lost almost 40 pounds. His skin colour was kind of grayish, blotchy. Constant headaches, severe headaches. Nausea, where he was throwing up at night,” said Brian.

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Once his father moved away to Falher, his health improved. When they drove back to the house to collect some things, Brian said, the symptoms returned. “To me, that was the proof I needed that there’s something here.”

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Another family member, Michel’s nephew Alain Labrecque, also moved away from Reno in 2011 with his wife and children because of health problems that they were experiencing, he says. They now live in Smithers, British Columbia.

MORE: Read Alain Labrecque’s story

Alain Labrecque is returning to Peace River, taking two weeks off work, to take part in the hearing.

“I’m not too interested in reiterating everything we’ve been through,” he said. “I’m more interested in the changes, that they do implement changes that are necessary.”

What they want are tougher emissions rules.

“There is definitely a regulatory gap,” Brian Labrecque said. “We just want more accountability. We want the regulator to take on a greater role, and have regulations in place so they can enforce them, and just provide more accountability to industry.”

Well over a thousand pages of reports, scientific studies and testimonials from residents, oil companies and experts in human and animal health have been submitted to the hearing’s panel.

The evidence so far is mixed: One report says there is “no obvious prospect” for emissions from oil wells to harm residents in the area.

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Another report points to health problems – like lung lesions found in deceased calves and lower cell counts of a specific kind of lymphocyte – among cattle exposed to higher levels of volatile organic compounds, such as oil emissions.

And a third report says that not only are health problems possible, but that among health care providers, “health effects associated with hydrocarbon extraction appear to be a taboo subject.”

Residents interviewed for chemical engineer Margaret Sears’ report said doctors were afraid to speak to their patients about hydrocarbon toxicity and, in some cases, refused further testing and treatment for their patients.

A medical record sent to Global News by Michel Labrecque’s lawyer showed that he visited a doctor in April 2012, complaining of dizziness and neck spasms. The doctor suspected “environmental toxicity.” When Michel returned in May after his move to Falher, his symptoms gone, the doctor advised him to contact environmental lawyers.

New Democrat critic Rachel Notley says the provincial government has avoided the kind of research that could settle questions about the long-term effects of petrochemical emissions.

MORE: Before Alberta emissions inquiry begins, sparring over expert credentials

Baytex, one of four oil companies presenting to the hearing, says it has studied human health and air quality in the region, most recently in early 2013. “And that health study has shown that there are no human health impacts associated with the emissions from our projects,” said Andrew Loosley, director of stakeholder relations for Baytex.

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“Our view is that our current operations are working within all the regulations and in some cases we are exceeding the regulations,” he said.

“The panel members will be able to weigh all that evidence and allow a decision that’s in the best interest of all Albertans.

“If there’s changes to the regulations, Baytex will comply.”

Will the Labrecques get the changes they’re hoping for? Their lawyer, Keith Wilson, is optimistic. But in the meantime he’s pursuing an injunction on grounds that have nothing to do with proving health problems.

“It became pretty apparent in early November that these folks could be at least a year away from possibly having changes to the emissions that are forcing them from their homes,” he said.

The application argues emissions from Baytex’s tanks are interfering with the Labrecques’ use and enjoyment of their property. Wilson hopes the eight-month injunction will give Baytex enough time to install systems to reduce tank emissions.

Baytex wouldn’t comment on the injunction case, writing in an emailed statement, “This matter is before the courts and Baytex will direct its public comments about this matter to those proceedings, which are scheduled to resume March 19 in Peace River.”

“Our focus at this point in time is really on the other part, which is the public inquiry that the AER has called,” said Loosley.

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With files from the Canadian Press

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