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Meet the Tar Sands Pollution Refugees

'Gassed' by oil sands operations, families say they've been forced to evacuate.
 
 
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Another Alberta pollution scandal has forced as many as six residents from their homes and poisoned scores of other citizens near the Peace River Oil Sands in the northwest corner of the province.

"It's a desperate situation," said Vivianne Laliberte who moved into her son's place last October after being repeatedly "gassed" from emissions from oil sands operations just 5 kilometres from her 85-year-old farm.

"There are a lot of sick people but they don't have the money to move," Laliberte told The Tyee. Her farm is located 48 kilometres south of Peace River.

Emissions from heavy oil extraction and storage facilities owned by Calgary-based Baytex Energy Corp., a heavy oil producer, forced her and her husband to abandon their property.

"But I don't blame the company," added Laliberte.

"I blame the ERCB (Alberta's energy regulator). They are not doing proper monitoring and are withholding data. They are responsible for this going on for years. They have lied to us more than the company. I don't know how they sleep at night."

Greg Melchin, a former Alberta Energy Minister and Tory politician, sits on the board of Baytex Energy.

Darin Barter, spokesman for the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERBC), says the board "continues to take this matter seriously. We have worked directly and frequently with residents, industry and other government agencies on these concerns."

Barter adds that the ERCB has assigned an extra inspector to the region and that "the ERCB is currently examining our regulatory options that may assist in resolving this issue."

But residents, many of whom were recently profiled in a  three-part CBC series, say the province has failed to regulate hydrocarbons being vented off of hundreds of bitumen storage tanks in the region.

No regulations

"There are no regulations on heated bitumen products. The carcinogens coming off those tanks are just crazy," says 50-year-old Carmen Langer, who worked in the industry for two decades.

His ranch, located 27 kilometres north of Peace River, is surrounded by hundreds of wells and hundreds of bitumen storage tanks.

"Three generations built this farm and now industry pollution is taking it away from us," says Langer, who recently sold his cattle. "We're done. I won't sell my home contaminated. We're not that kind of people."

Langer, who calls bureaucrats and politicians every day for action on bitumen vapour recovery, recently presented a $3.8-million bill to the province for land contamination and property devaluation.

"The government is mental not to deal with this situation," said Langer.

But Ian Johnson, an independent scientist with a PhD in chemistry who has advised citizens on the inadequacy of government air monitoring, does not think the government has any interest in regulating.

"Industry isn't contravening any regulations because there are none that I know of. It's a case of colossal mismanagement," explained Johnson.

Pollutants also change with the quality of heated bitumen stored in the tanks. One Australian  study found that measured off-gassing pollutants included PAH, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene, chloromethane and acetone.A 2003 Shell Bitumen Handbook notes that bitumen fumes from heated storage tanks can "result in the irritation to the eyes, nose and respiratory tract and headaches and nausea" and adds that exposure should be minimized. Moreover, emissions from storage tanks can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) as well as hydrogen sulfide, a deadly neurotoxin even at small levels.Bitumen deposits around Peace River vary greatly in quality, sulfur content and thickness. Some deposits can be recovered with steam injection while others use a cold production method known as CHOPS. It pumps both bitumen and sand to the surface from 600-metre-deep deposits. The ultra-heavy oil is then stored in heated tanks (up to 120 degrees) where gases can build up. Once vented into the air these toxic fumes can travel for miles.

 
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