Alberta inquiry finds oil odours may be making people sick

An Alberta panel has recommended changing to the way oil companies near Peace River handle their emissions due to their potential to sicken residents.

It’s at least a partial victory for families who have insisted for years the smells have made them so sick they’ve been driven from their homes. But, it shies away from a blanket recommendation that odours be completely eliminated, instead suggesting that they be eliminated “to the extent possible,” and that all produced gas should be conserved “where feasible.”

The independent Alberta Energy Regulator panel, which held public hearings in January, heard evidence from local residents, scientists, engineers and oil companies on the issue of odours and emissions from heavy oil operations near Peace River.

Residents had complained for years about health problems such as dizziness, headaches and stomach issues they attributed to fumes from the oil development. Seven families have left their homes, according to Keith Wilson, lawyer for some of the families who presented at the hearing.

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READ MORE: Alberta families leaving homes for health reasons blame oil giants next door

In a report released Wednesday, the panel found that odours from heavy oil operations in the area have “the potential to cause some of the symptoms experienced by residents.” As such, they recommend that the odours be eliminated as much as possible and the linkages between odour and health be studied more closely.

But the panel didn’t find any indication the chemicals themselves were poisoning residents – just that people’s symptoms were likely linked to odours.

The panel had some concrete recommendations for oil companies: Notably, the AER require that all produced gas be captured, and that gas from bitumen storage tanks (a particular concern for many residents) be captured using vapour recovery technology. It recommends that this equipment be installed within four months on existing facilities, and immediately on any new facilities in the area.

Additionally, the panel recommends the regulator prohibit gas venting. In an emergency situation where flaring is not available, the report suggests, the well should be immediately shut in. And when gas leaks are discovered, the problem should be repaired within 12 hours, or the facility should be shut down until repairs are completed.

Existing provincial regulations aren’t sufficient to “effectively manage hydrocarbon odours and emissions,” the report states. As such, it recommends the AER establish local regulations for the Peace River area and that Alberta’s environment ministry examine establishing odour guidelines for the entire province.

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The report also notes that bitumen in the area contains more sulphur than most bitumen, making it “likely a source of the ongoing odour and emissions complaints and symptoms reported by residents.” The panel recommends the bitumen be studied further to determine what volatile compounds could be released when it’s heated during processing.

Baytex did not respond to questions Monday afternoon.

Brian Labrecque, whose family has argued for years the smells have made them sick and driven them from their homes, was buoyed by the report- not least because it came out on time.

“It is encouraging. It’s nice to see that what we’ve been saying for the last number of years, a lot of it has been confirmed and has been supported by the panel,” he said.

“It’s a step in the right direction. Obviously, we’ve got a long road ahead of us: These are recommendations; they’re not legally binding.”

But he’d like to see them implemented – “too much time has passed. It’s imperative,” he argued. That includes recommendations to curb emissions as well as independent measures to  monitor them.

“I think we have to show the world that we can develop our resources in a responsible manner.”

In the meantime, the families await word on an injunction that would force Baytex Energy to halt its operations until it installs equipment to minimize its emissions. That decision could come within the month.

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After that, it could be a years-long battle for damages and compensation.

But in the meantime their lawyer Keith Wilson is pleased with the report, and confident its recommendations will be implemented and have teeth.

“There’s strong political support to see this problem fixed,” he said. But “as much as this is a victory and a vindication for these families, the reality is theyre still out of their homes. This does nothing to address the harm of the past or the harm of the present.”

READ: The Alberta Energy Regulator inquiry’s report

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