Ill wind: Alberta families leaving homes for health reasons blame oil giants next door
Alain Labrecque left his grain farm in northern Alberta in December, 2011.
He, his wife Karla and his two young children, now aged 6 and 5, packed up and eventually settled in Smithers, B.C.
They hadn’t planned to move. But their home was making them sick, Labrecque says.
“We started getting dizzy and getting headaches. We just couldn’t shake it,” he said. “It came all at once” – in 2010, after an oil company expanded operations around the family’s farm southeast of Peace River.
Soon after, living and working on his farm became uncomfortable. Dizziness, digestive problems, muscle cramps and headaches afflicted the family.
“It’s like you’ve got a belt strapped on your head the whole time,” he said.
His wife, son and daughter suffered through the winter in 2010. When spring came, they had a reprieve from the symptoms. But it didn’t last.
“When it got cold again, then everything would come back,” he said.
“By December, we said, ‘The heck with this.’”
His brother Donald still lives in the area, though he hopes to leave soon. He complains of headaches, muscle twitches and occasional nosebleeds.
“It’s not somewhere where you can take your chances and say, ‘I’ll live here the next 20 years and raise a family,’” Donald said.
Alain Labrecque believes his family’s symptoms were caused by fumes coming from nearby bitumen storage tanks, owned by Baytex Energy Corporation.
They complained to the provincial body regulating the oil and gas industry. The environment ministry performed air quality tests on his farm. Labrecque laughs when he tells of one recommendation to come out of that testing: “To close our windows and doors when odours were present.”
To this day, he said, he still gets sick when he visits his old farm.
The area around Labrecque’s former home is a rural mix of farmland and oilpatch operations run by several companies. It’s also become Alberta’s epicentre of oil-related complaints: According to a database of complaints from Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (now the Alberta Energy Regulator) obtained by Global News, residents in the Three Creeks area, slightly north of the Labrecques, have complained more often to the regulator than people anywhere else in the province.
Since 2010 there have been 710 complaints – about odours, human and animal health –from people living within a 20-kilometre radius of the centre of Three Creeks.
MAP: Selected types of complaints received by the Alberta Energy Regulator from January 1, 1975 to February 2, 2013.Click here to view map »
“The rules might have to change”
Alberta’s Energy Minister knows it’s a problem. So does Alberta Health Services. And they’ve vowed to do something about it.
They just don’t know what’s wrong.
“None of the chemicals, on a consistent basis, have exceeded the regulations and limits or the guidelines,” said Dr. Albert de Villiers, Lead Medical Officer of Health for the Alberta Health Services’ North Zone, which includes Peace River and Three Creeks.
“So it’s difficult to pin anything down. It’s difficult to fine the company because they’re technically not doing anything wrong, but we know it’s having an effect on the people in some way.”
Health and environment officials have done tests for abnormally high rates of cancer, asthma, pulmonary disease – “We haven’t found anything,” he said.
In 2010, Alberta Health Services gave doctors in the Peace River area a form to record symptoms of patients complaining of health problems they say are related to the oil and gas industry, so they can be referred to a specialist if necessary. The information in the form would also be analyzed for patterns.
But to date, only two people have ever completed the form, both while visiting a local hospital, AHS told Global News.
Tests so far suggest companies operating in the area aren’t breaking any rules. According to a statement from the Alberta Energy Regulator, “inspectors have conducted in excess of 700 inspections in this area in the past three years with very few noncompliances being encountered. All noncompliances were addressed in a timely manner.”
“The rules might have to change,” de Villiers said. “And, as you know, that takes long in government to work through these kinds of things, to make sure the rules change and it’s fair to everybody.”
“We had to get out”
Thera Breau and her four sons, all under 7 years old, used to live in Reno, Alberta, right near the Labrecques.
Breau’s boys had had some problems with incontinence, insomnia, muscle twitches. She didn’t make much of it, until the family left for a six-week Christmas vacation and the boys’ symptoms largely disappeared. They started to come back when they returned to the farm.
And this past spring, as she noticed an increase in tanker trucks driving past her home, their symptoms worsened.
Her two-year-old Bodhi “started getting wounds on the back of his knees,” she said. “It started as a big red blotch, but by the beginning of March, it was open.”
When five-year-old Kolt had a temper tantrum because his eye was twitching so badly, she decided to leave. They now live in McClennan, Alberta, a 20-minute drive from their old farm, and Thera hopes to move even further away sometime in the fall.
She complained to the energy regulator, but she said that nothing came of it. “I said there were health effects, they just take it down and that’s it. You don’t hear anything after.”
Former oilfield engineer Carmen Langer has also moved out of his Three Creeks home, where he said his family has raised cattle for the past 90 years.
“I’m very sick right now. I’m not even able to work,” said Langer, who still regularly visits his farm, although he no longer lives there.
“We were forced off,” he said. “We haven’t been in our home since March. We had to get out permanently.”
“80 per cent of those complaints are probably coming from three families”
Baytex, for its part, says its operations aren’t to blame.
“We are and remain fully compliant with the Alberta Energy Regulator with all of our operations and will remain so,” said Brian Ector, Baytex Vice-President of Investor Relations.
“We will continue to go above and beyond, quite frankly, in all of our operations when it comes to the environment, health and safety.”
Ector said Baytex hasn’t drilled in that area in over a year, and installed vapour recovery systems and a gas conservation system on its tanks. He estimates that in the Reno region, to the southeast of Peace River, the company is now capturing more than 90 per cent of the gas that it was previously releasing. In the Three Creeks area, he said, they are now capturing 100 per cent.
The company also recently commissioned a third-party air quality study. While they aren’t releasing the results, Ector said, “The study did confirm our expectation that our operations are not creating any harmful health effects.”
Other companies have received complaints, as well: “In recent years residents in the area have expressed concerns related to odours from cumulative emissions,” Shell spokesman Stephen Doolan said in an email, noting the company has since installed vapour recovery units and set up a “gas gathering system” to limit emissions.
Husky Energy spokesman Mel Duvall said the company “understand[s] there are ongoing concerns in this region and we will continue to work with industry and government to address those concerns.”
What’s more, Baytex’s Ector added, the slew of complaints the regulator’s received aren’t indicative of the norm for most people in the area.
“I’d say about 80 per cent of those complaints are probably coming from three families,” he said. “And there are many, many more families that live and farm and work in the regions where we operate than just three families.
“We continue to communicate and work with them as well,” he added.
But as complaints continue, the Alberta government isn’t denying that there’s something going on.
“Put all of the facts on the table”
Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes visited Three Creeks in March 2013.
“I did hear from people their stories about the strongly objectionable nature of the emissions and the effect it’s having on their quality of life,” he said.
“I hear them and I have taken steps to ensure that those issues are addressed by industry and ensuring that industry hears that message as well.”
He said that he and local MLAs have encouraged the energy regulator to “take a fresh look at this,” and spoken with industry representatives in the area. A community working group was established in 2010 and met regularly until May 2012, the AER said in a statement. “There were many positive outcomes from that group including significant reductions in venting and improved operations.”
To the best of his knowledge, Hughes said, Baytex and local companies have not breached emissions regulations.
When asked what that says about the regulations, he replied, “It’s possible that the regulations don’t anticipate every circumstance. This is a very unusual circumstance, and it’s possible that we have something to learn from this.”
Last month, the Alberta Energy Regulator announced a public inquiry into hydrocarbon emissions in the Three Creeks and Reno areas. Details so far are scant and a spokesperson refused to elaborate, but a “pre-hearing” is anticipated for this fall. The inquiry is supposed to consider residents’ concerns, examine information about human and animal health, and examine policies and air quality standards, according to a press release.
“My ambition for it would be that it would put all of the facts on the table so that everybody’s dealing with the same facts, and that it is clear what, if any, public policy changes need to be made as a result of that work,” Hughes said.
Baytex’s Ector said the upcoming inquiry is a “great forum” for residents to voice their concerns and a “great opportunity” for scientists to present data to the public. “We will, of course, cooperate fully within that public inquiry.”
“I don’t want to see anybody else living there”
But several families who’ve been vocal in their complaints say Baytex is also trying to solve these issues on its own.
Two families say the company has offered to buy their land, attaching extensive non-disclosure clauses to the contract.
One contract obtained by Global News would prevent the family and its “heirs, successors or assigns” from speaking with the media or encouraging others to speak to the media about Baytex other than to say that “We decided to move out of the area, away from the oil activity. We have reached an agreement with Baytex concerning our situation.”
The contract also includes clauses prohibiting the family from communicating with “any elected or non-elected representatives or officials concerning Baytex or its Affiliates,” and from making any “disparaging” or “derogatory” remarks about Baytex to anyone.
Baytex refused to comment on the contract or confirm it had made any offers to purchase land.
“Any service agreements or disputes that might arise, they would be governed by the appropriate dispute resolution process. … And all of that work is truly bound by confidentiality agreements. All parties, us and others, would be bound by that confidentiality,” Ector said.
While this sort of non-disclosure agreement is not common in general land sales, “it is very common in land acquisitions in the energy industry,” said David Percy, professor of energy law and policy at the University of Alberta.
He said energy companies have an interest in keeping land purchase prices, and even the fact that they are looking to purchase land, secret – disclosing these things could potentially drive up future prices.
But when it comes to the larger effect on a community, he said, “It certainly does carry the risk of suppressing comment, absolutely.”
Hughes said this is the first he’s heard of such a non-disclosure clause and he would like to examine the issue further.
“I would discourage anybody from ever trying to discourage citizens from talking to their elected officials, because that would be inappropriate,” he said.
Both Hughes and Percy doubt whether a clause preventing people from speaking to public officials would be enforceable.
“If you interpret that as saying even if they break the law under the regulations, you can’t complain to the energy regulator, I would have to say that my offhanded opinion is that it would be doubtful that that can be enforced,” said Percy. “I just couldn’t imagine a court upholding that.”
For now, Alain Labrecque is spending his last summer working at his old farm in Reno before he shuts it down completely. Although he has moved to B.C., he said doesn’t want to sell the farmhouse to another family to have them go through the same thing.
“I don’t want to see anybody else living there,” he said. “It’s not something that happened. It’s still happening.”
VIDEO: Alain Labrecque takes Global Edmonton’s Vassy Kapelos on a tour of his abandoned home near Peace River, Alberta. Baytex, one of several oil companies operating in the area, says its operations are fully compliant with the Alberta Energy Regulator and air quality tests have shown that they meet the province’s ambient air quality objectives. Other companies contacted by Global News said the same.
Note: Story updated August 30, 2013 at 5:24 pm Eastern to include video of Alain Labrecque.