July 15, 2014 4:26 pm
Updated: July 15, 2014 4:28 pm

UPDATE: Most heavy-oil operations comply with stricter venting rules


Watch above: Strong oilfield odours forced them from their homes. Now, landowners in the Peace River area are hopeful new emissions rules will bring them back. Tom Vernon was there in June 2014 to see the inspections first-hand.

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Update: As Global Edmonton reported below, the Alberta Energy Regulator inspected 355 lease sites in the Peace River area in late June 2014 to ensure no offensive odours were being released. A summary of the sweep shows at the seven sites where inspectors detected odours, the operators immediately made repairs or the sites were shut in until repairs could be made. AER will do a second round of compliance sweeps in late August.

PEACE RIVER — As he surveys a looming thunderstorm on the horizon, Mark Roberts can’t help but feel he’s not fully living the life he wants for his young family.

Roberts has lived almost his entire life on a family farm just north of Falher, Alberta. They have about 8,000 acres and a couple of homes on their land. He shares a trailer with his wife and young daughter, but at the moment, that home is sitting vacant.

Two years ago, the family started noticing strong odours from nearby heavy oil operations run by Baytex Energy. Roberts and his wife started getting headaches and dizzy spells. This past January, for the sake of their daughter, they made the hard decision to leave.

“Our health was deteriorating, we weren’t going to take the chance that we wreck hers before she even has a chance.”

It’s a decision nearly a dozen families in the area have made, all of them forced out from odours they claim were making them sick.

“There was times it would linger here all day, every day for a week,” adds Roberts.

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

For two years, the families raised their concerns with oilfield companies, area politicians and the provincial regulator. In January, the Alberta Energy Regulator held a week-long public hearing, coming to the conclusion that the oil companies were going to have to change how they do business.

The decision, called Directive 60, laid out a series of benchmarks. Starting June 16, the companies would have to eliminate all offensive odours leaving their lease sites. To ensure compliance, the regulator is conducting a week-long sweep of the area.

“It’s a focused inspection,” says Jeff Toering, a senior compliance advisor with the Alberta Energy Regulator. “We bring staff from all over the province in a geographic area to look at specific activity.”

READ MORE: Regulator checks oilsands companies in northwest Alberta for odours

Two-person teams will visit more than 200 lease sites in the Peace River area to monitor odours. They have a device that can detect methane in the air and an infrared camera that can spot leaks. If a site is found to be non-compliant, they are immediately contacted and given a few hours to fix the problem. If it persists, there are consequences.

“It’s a social license thing: meet higher, above and beyond requirements when you’re affecting people,” says Gerald Palanca, an oil and gas advisor for AER.

“One thing we can do, we can shut in a facility. We also have punitive penalties,” he adds.

In August, companies will have to stop venting gas at the leases all together. Eventually, the companies won’t even be allowed to flare, instead capturing the gas and using it for other purposes.

While many families have left their homes permanently, Roberts hopes these changes, along with stricter enforcement, will allow him to move his family back to the farm – the only place he’s ever wanted to call home.

“You know, we’ll give it a shot,” says Roberts, just before the skies opened up. “Hopefully they stick to their part and do what’s said is going to happen, and if that’s the case, there should be no issues.”

*Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 17, 2014. It was updated on Tuesday, July 15, 2014 to include a summary of the results.

© 2014 Shaw Media

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