The pages of Karla and Alain Labrecques photo albums reek of bitumen. They're so soaked with toxic fumes that just looking at their photos makes them ill. The Labrecques abandoned their farm near Peace River, Alberta, after emissions from a nearby tar sands operation caused each family member to experience health problems. They were the first of seven families to abandon the area, but others living near the Reno and Three Creeks oil fields are left behind and continue to suffer. The vapours that permeated the Labrecques home still cling to all of their old possessions, “right down to pictures or paper, our books, our filing cabinets,” said Alain Labrecque.
After hundreds of complaints from residents and a lawsuit against an oil company, in late January, the industry-funded Alberta Energy Regulator held a public inquiry into local emissions. It took place at the appropriately named Belle Petroleum Centre, and was punctuated by tears and emotional outbursts. Carmen Langer, a rancher living in the thick of Three Creeks’ oil fumes, explained that according to community air monitors “one day of the inquiry we were four times over the [normal] background level of the gas. Everybody went to that inquiry stoned out of their minds and angry.”
After years of toxic exposure, Peace River residents had plenty of anger to vent.
Residents blame bitumen emissions for their seizures and shakes, eye twitches, muscle pain and spasms, numbness, crippling headaches, dizziness, nausea, loss of balance, short and long-term memory loss, slurred speech, slowed thought, loss of hearing, shallow breathing, blackouts, swelling, sinus irritation, metallic taste, no sense of smell, nosebleeds, blood in urine, rectal bleeding, chronic heart burn, insomnia, inability to stay awake, intoxication, sedation, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, weeping, weight loss, sweating profusely, hot and cold flashes, and bruising. The exact long-term impacts of exposure are unknown, though detected compounds like benzene and toluene may lead to MS, dementia, Parkinson’s, or cancer.
Worse still, those who sought help have only found corruption. Industry and government mislead them, labs skewed air test results, and doctors refused to diagnose them. The Alberta Energy Regulator oversees Alberta’s oil patch and is “100 percent funded by industry”. It essentially allows Peace River companies to regulate themselves. And living in a town where almost everybody works for the oil industry, those speaking out have become outsiders; they are the bearers of an unpopular truth.
“It is just our opinion that we have come up to a wall of systemic, entrenched corruption—people dedicated to misleading us and stifling the truth,” Vivienne Laliberte, a Reno resident forced to leave her home, testified to the AER. “We have not met one person in government, in industry, and regulations who has demonstrated a functional conscience.”
Unlike the sprawling open-pit mines and poisonous lakes that have made Fort McMurray’s tar sands infamous, many of Peace River’s operations use wells to bring bitumen up to the surface of the land. It is heated in tall black canisters that line the horizon, then pumped into trucks or pipelines. This method is called CHOPS—or Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand. It is the only method currently used in Reno.
Despite claims from Shell and Baytex that their CHOPS operations meet or surpass all applicable standards, few regulations actually exist for this method. Local oil producers are legally permitted to vent toxic gas into the environment in any non-explosive amount, including known carcinogens like benzene, toluene, and poly aromatic hydrocarbons. Baytex leaves the hatches open on many of their tanks, despite years of requests from the Labrecques to close them.
“It is rather appalling to know that 'within regulations' means that they can poison my family,” Karla Labrecque wrote in an open letter to Baytex. The company took over oil wells half a kilometre from her home in 2011. Within a year, according to the ERCB, recorded emissions jumped by about 6,000 percent.
Andrew Loosley, Baytex’s spokesperson, said that even prior to Baytex’s takeover of the oil field “all gasses associated with that production in the Reno operations [were] vented into the atmosphere,” as is permitted by “all applicable regulatory guidelines.” He attributed the increase in gasses to the fact that the previous company, unlike Baytex, “was not recording their numbers.”
But around the time of this documented increase, the Labrecques began to get sick. They initially struggled to identify the source of their illnesses, checking for boiler defects and carbon monoxide in their home. The tar-like smell that hung in the air was an obvious but unsuspected culprit—the family had welcomed their new industrial neighbours without suspicion. “I had this naïve thought like everyone else that the oil industry was strictly regulated, and a nightmare like this taking place was just not possible,” Alain said.
After a few months of exposure, Alain suffered from eye-twitches, back pain, headaches, and muscle spasms. He “would just soak the bed from these toxins at night,” had poor balance and foggy memory, and found it increasingly difficult to operate farm equipment. Karla recalled experiencing “a hollow feeling in the arms, hot and cold flashes, [and a] massive left-side headache,” clarifying that “this is not like a migraine. This is like somebody’s taking a 2-by-4 to your head.” At the height of her illness, she discovered that “if I turned my head too far to the left I could actually make myself pass out.”
Their daughter, then two years old, was unable to keep balance. “She would fall off things—you know, one stair up, she’d fall off it. She’d fall off the couch, she’d fall off the chair when she was just sitting, eating supper,” Karla Labrecque explained.
When they spent time away from their home, the Labrecques felt better. They moved away and learned that half-hour visits to the farm would cause each family member’s symptoms to reappear. Karla has become particularly sensitive and finds herself bedridden for a day or two whenever she encounters chlorine, windshield wiper fluid, vehicle exhaust, or her old, petro-chemical-soaked possessions.
Alain’s uncle, Mike Labrecque, needs a gas mask to make it through the town. “As soon as I’m exposed, I lose—I lose everything. I lose my hearing, I lose my balance, my speech. I don’t stutter as a rule; I don’t. I lose my ability to talk, I lose my ability almost to comprehend,” he told the AER.
Before abandoning his home, he lived close to Karla and Alain in a forested corner he described as “a park.” He enjoyed his work as a contractor for Baytex, pushing trucks through mud and snow with a tractor. As Baytex’s emissions made him increasingly ill, he struggled to stay awake while operating the vehicle. One day he told Baytex that he didn’t think he could work safely, so they fired him.
“Everything has to be done in a safe manner so we had no choice,” Baytex’s spokesperson Andrew Loosley said.
Alberta’s health services.
In early 2012, the Labrecques received a confusing letter from Alberta Health Services. It told them that “chemicals associated with unrefined petroleum products were detected in air samples” but that they posed “no immediate or long-term risk to health or safety” based on Alberta’s ambient air quality guidelines. The letter also advised the Labrecques to “limit your exposure by closing windows and doors when odours are detected.”
Another of Alberta Health’s suggestions played out like a sick joke: “If you or anyone in your family is concerned about their health, please discuss these concerns with your physician at your earliest opportunity,” the letter said.
Mike had lost a lot of weight from vomiting and diarrhea. He sweated profusely at night, testifying that: “If I lied down… I could watch my chest and I could literally see the water coming out and form little rivers.” His breath was shallow, his voice was hoarse, he had trouble going to sleep and getting up. His speech suffered and he became convinced that he was terminally ill. He thought, “maybe I have cancer or something. ‘Cause I’d look in the mirror and it was scary. I could actually see my bone sockets.”
Mike mentioned the oil wells near his home to a doctor. And after retreating a little bit they told him that he didn't need a doctor; he needed a lawyer instead.
Karla Labrecque sought medical attention and a sinus specialist named Dr. Mel Delacruz became convinced that she was being exposed to an airborne pollutant. When Karla mentioned the oil wells just south of her home, Dr. Delacruz “Just told me to move. He said, 'You are just a small, little bolt in this huge robot and you don’t matter. Move.'”
Karla recalled that Delacruz “wasn’t too keen on speaking out” and that he referenced Dr. John O’Connor—a physician who was “dragged through the courts” after linking rare cancers to tar sands mining. When Karla insisted on a blood test to check for petroleum by-products in her body, Delacruz refused. “I'm not even allowed to call for that stuff on a blood test,” she was told. Dr. Delacruz could not be reached for comment.
A few months later, Karla tried again. She demanded a blood toxicity test from the Peace River hospital, alleging that a doctor there also refused to take her blood. When she refused to leave, the doctor called an unnamed government representative to seek permission for the test—a process Karla thought was unusual. Permission was granted, but as the Vancouver Observer reported, the hospital ran a type of blood test that is useless for detecting petro-chemical compounds.
“The doctors won’t help you with your symptoms,” Three Creeks resident Carmen Langer said. “It’s the Alberta way. I mean, when you’re working for the Alberta government are you going to recognize this issue until you’re forced to?”
The Langer Ranch.
Carmen Langer says he’s seen dozens of tanker trucks roll over in his community of Three Creeks, a 20-minute drive northeast of Peace River . He’s convinced that truckers are leaving the oil field “drunker than skunks” after getting high on fumes while filling up their vehicles. He knows this experience well; he drove trucks for the oil industry and sometimes felt impaired behind the wheel.
“It’s just like drugs or alcohol in your body. And then when you come off it there are the same effects as an alcoholic or a junkie has,” Langer said. So when testifying before the AER late January, he understandably had little patience to offer.
“I'm not feeling well because we got severely gassed Sunday morning at our place,” he told the regulators. “And again this morning.”
Though the AER’s inquiry focused on Baytex’s Reno oil field, Carmen told the regulators that “there’s only one company in that area—I have five here with constant emissions.” Three Creek’s oil fields host the operations of Shell, Penn West, Murphy, Husky, and Tervita.
“The bitumen smell is so strong in your house and in your pillow, in your blankets, in your blinds, in your drywall, your mattress—everything is contaminated. I live in a contaminated environment because of this… I lay on my couch; it smells like bitumen. I go to open my blinds; they smell like bitumen,” he testified.
For more than a decade prior to the Labrecques becoming ill, Langer has had disputes with local industry. An ex-oil worker, he is extremely critical of how industry operates today.
“As a young guy for me it was a blessing because the jobs were unlimited here… good oil sands jobs,” Langer said. Working for Shell, he maintained facilities, fitted pipes, and served as a safety contractor. Shell trained him to watch for hydrocarbon odours on the job and “to get out of the area” if odours became too strong. “Twenty years ago we couldn’t work in these kinds of conditions, but now I have to sleep in them?” he asked.
Langer’s loud, dissenting voice has brought him some unwanted attention. He claims that he’s been threatened by industry and he is currently the subject of an RCMP investigation. He also worries that he has become detested by some in his community—especially those who aren’t affected.
Different homes get different doses of pollution, he explained, arguing that wind patterns and altitude play a major role in determining who gets sick. His ranch is at a low elevation and traps pollutants until heavy winds disperse them because “emissions are heavier than air,” he said. “As they’re leaving the tanks they’re warm, they go up a little bit, then they cool and they fall into a lower spot… that’s why you could have a neighbour up on a hill a mile away, they would hardly get any of it.”
Langer believes that this uneven distribution of pollutants explains why some residents have a hard time believing those who feel ill. “They think come on, the government wouldn’t do this to you. That’s what the majority of the town thought before this inquiry,” he said.
But despite naysayers, Langer’s activism has helped to make a political issue out of Peace River. When Premier Alison Redford visited the town she met with Langer personally. He asked her to “quit selling this stuff until it’s fixed,” and she promised swift action. Now he’s cynical of the whole affair. He said: “As soon as there’s a ribbon cutting in our town, the rotten sons of bitches run to the ribbon cutting where their name’s prominent and it's good news, but they couldn’t come and face the people here.” He pointed out that as residents of Peace River poured out their hearts at the AER inquiry, Alison Redford was out of the country, promoting the oil sands at the World Economic Forum. “Why isn’t she here listening to the impacts?” Langer asked the AER.
“I have no choice to go anywhere. We’ve lost our total livelihood, we have no income,” he said. Having formerly won awards for their cattle, the Langers “had to get rid of our herd of cattle of eighty years. It was just so gassy. We couldn’t work anymore. We couldn’t get up in the morning to work anymore, and we couldn’t keep our cattle on their feet.” His vet told him to take his cattle and leave, but Langer pushed the government to test his cows for hydrocarbon exposure. When government scientists came to his farm, they tested the cows for venereal disease instead. Langer even believes that they “falsified” their final report. “They never did test for the fat,” he said, adding “[that's] the only place you’re going to find the hydrocarbons.”
Langer also voiced concern over a growing Three Creek’s dumpsite of oil sands waste and a practice called “landfarming” that his family fell victim to seventeen years ago.
Landfarming, he explained, is a practice promoted by government and industry, where farmers are encouraged to do something rather illogical—to spread waste from oil wells across their land. It began with conventional crude wells in Southern Alberta, whose drillings contained phosphates and nitrites that worked well as fertilizers. But since that time the nature of oil extraction has changed and bitumen drillings are much more toxic, so after seventeen years and millions of dollars in remediation costs, little will grow on Langer’s farm.
At the AER’s inquiry, two expert witnesses debated about what instrument is best for detecting airborne toxins. One expert said it was air-monitoring standards, while the other said it was a human body.
Using data gleaned from air tests, Dr. Davies, a former DOW Chemical corporate toxicologist, said residents “are not being poisoned by these emissions.” Air tests showed toxins were only present at levels that “would not cause adverse effects among members of the general public” and that symptoms are “stress related” and are “actually being caused by the brain’s interpretation of odour.” Other factors that might inflame symptoms, he argued, included income, employment, and marital status, adding that “if an individual is dissatisfied with the facility, you’ll see a higher prevalence of symptoms.”
This left residents awestruck. Vivienne Laliberte, who has lost her sense of smell, found the presentation to be “condescending,” while Carmen Langer thought it “was a bunch of BS.” Langer explained “we react way before we smell the odour. These carcinogens get into our bodies first, and you feel it before you even smell it. Any of my neighbours will tell you that.”
To the oil companies in the room, Dr. Davies’ perspective was invaluable. Incorporating his presentation, Baytex concluded: “All of the objective science-based evidence indicates that our operations are safe for workers and the public,” and that “an understanding that emissions are not poisoning people may reduce odour annoyance and stress-related symptoms.”
But this conclusion doesn’t really take into account the testimony of Dr. Sears. She believes the emissions are indeed making people ill, that Dr. Davies uses outdated methodology, and that labs throughout Alberta don’t produce useful data because they are allowed to make up their own chemical detection limits.
She explained that carbonyl sulphide and carbon disulphide were both detected in air samples and that the body metabolizes these compounds into hydrogen sulphide, a neurotoxin associated with “a broad range of quite serious health effects.” Inside your body, hydrogen sulphide slows down your energy metabolism “so you can’t think as quickly, you can’t respond.” This compound also inhibits your body’s ability to detoxify itself from hydrocarbons, which could explain the extreme sensitivities some residents have developed. “Your body can’t get rid of these chemicals nearly as quickly as it would otherwise,” she explained.
She argued that checking for toxins against established safe levels, as Dr. Davies did, misses the big picture—it doesn’t take into account how different compounds interact inside your body, and doesn’t consider that these chemicals can accumulate over time.
Sears also pointed out that labs in Alberta are not standardized, leaving them free to determine how much of a chemical is needed in order for it to be detected in their tests. Chemistry Matters, the lab that Baytex hired, explicitly caters their test results to their client’s needs. The company’s website notes that they use high detection limits “to protect our client’s interests by preventing false positive results.” To Sears, this basically means “telling somebody that something that can harm them is not there.”
“I’m very concerned that your data is not really very reliable and is not very helpful,” Dr. Sears told the AER. “Some of the compounds are not being detected properly.”
But even without labs skewing results, Melina Laboucan Massimo, a Greenpeace campaigner who has worked with Three Creeks, argued that Alberta’s air quality standards are not actually safe—she knows from experience.
Massimo comes from the nearby First Nations community of Little Buffalo, where the government has leased 70 percent of the land to industries without consent from the people who live there. As of 2010, more than 2,684 oil and gas wells have been built around the community. “Even around the time that I was born when the oil industry started popping up there were… miscarriages, issues of pulmonary diseases like emphysema and asthma, so there’s definitely long-term health impacts,” Melina said.
When a massive oil spill occurred in the territory in 2011, nobody from government or industry informed the people of Little Buffalo. Melina recalls that locals were experiencing “burning eyes, nausea, and headaches” because “isobutanes and benzenes would have been emitted into the air.” She found herself “arguing with the government and the companies about ‘why are young children, why are elders, why are pregnant women in the community not being told to leave?’” But the government and industry simply insisted: “We haven’t exceeded the ambient air quality objective of Alberta. These are just noxious gasses that people are breathing in. It shouldn’t be any concern.”
“I think that somebody’s body is a good indication that there’s something seriously wrong. The Alberta ambient air quality objectives are obviously too low if they’re not even detecting [this],” Melina said.
Hope and the Alberta Energy Regulator.
The Peace River hearings are the first real test of the new Alberta Energy Regulator, the only organization which can force local oil companies to pollute less. It is replacing an older oil sands regulator, the ERCB, and employs many of the same people.
“It’s the same people, it’s just a different name,” Langer said, “because the ERCB has such a bad image they had to do something drastic.”
This poor reputation owes mostly to the way that the AER investigates odour incidents. A resident smells something and calls the AER to complain, and the AER then calls the company and asks them if there have been any toxic releases. Whatever the company responds with is taken as truth. I asked the AER about this and their spokesperson Ryan Bartlett simply said that “the Alberta Energy Regulator follows up with every complaint received.”
But Diane Plowman, a resident of Three Creeks, found that “the vast majority of reports that we get back about whether or not there was any abnormalities or unusual events don't indicate that the regulator actually even inspected, went out, visited.” She said that even when community air monitors from the Three Creeks working group have found toxins, the AER often reports that there was “nothing identified.”
Information from the companies then moves up the chain of command. Vivienne Laliberte recalls a phone call to the Ministry of Energy where she spoke to Ken Hughes’ chief of staff David Golan. Golan “assured me that Baytex was no longer venting or flaring in our area, and we had nothing to worry about. I said, David, I’m looking at the flare; what are you talking about? I said, when Baytex tells you something do you check up on it? And he said, no, but the AER does.”
Residents also told the regulator that they were stone-walled when requesting air monitoring results and community complaints. They were frequently told that they should file costly and time-consuming freedom of information requests. “If the emissions were public, why was the data private?” a resident, Donna Dahm, asked the AER.
Ryan Bartlett, the AER’s spokesperson, assured me that “the AER’s structure is specifically designed to ensure strong corporate oversight and impartiality,” because the government has a role in authorizing the AER to collect money from industry. But Melina Laboucan Massimo believes that “there’s so much crossover between government and industry within Alberta that it really compromises the ability for them to regulate.” To her, the AER is “a compromised system.”
And it’s the only system in place.
Most residents are cautiously optimistic that the AER, in their wisdom, will enact a positive change. “I feel that the board was very much so listening to us. They heard it, very loud and clear,” Karla Labrecque said. “We really gotta have faith that these guys will do what’s right.” Alain agreed.
Even Carmen Langer thinks that “something positive has to come out of this.” But ever-the-pragmatist, he clarified that “if they don’t fix the problem, they gave us some pretty good information for a class action, eh?”
“Take. Sue me. Sue me. Sue me. That’s always what you get from these people. How does the uneducated farmer take on these big industries? We can’t. And they know that. They hold that against us,” Carmen Langer said.
While the Labrecques are speaking Baytex’s language, suing for an injunction to force the company to shut down operations until emissions are fixed, they believe they will never be able to ever safely return to their home. They’re suing for their neighbours, Alain said, who are “far enough off of the zone that if these regulations are done in time, they can be saved, I believe, before they get too sensitive.” And while life goes on in Peace River, the Labrecques abandoned farm is just one scar among many that no lawsuit will heal.
“The destruction to my family and the heartbreak in my community and the First Nations community around us, how’s that ever going to be fixed?” Carmen Langer asked the AER. “I’ve lost good friends over this, I’ve lost good neighbours over this, and how do you fix that? Our community was destroyed by the oil sands industry and a lot of it’s never going to be fixed, no matter what they do.”
“If this particular issue was happening in downtown Edmonton [or Calgary], this would have been addressed within a month. The fact remains, there’s a small group of residents in Reno, a small group in Three Creeks; we really, at this point, are collateral damage,” Vivienne Laliberte told the AER.
“A society should be judged not by how well it takes care of its powerful and wealthy, but rather how well it takes care of its most vulnerable. Children come to mind and those who don't have the resources to sue. So is there justice only for those who can?” she asked.
“A society which is prepared to sacrifice its own children for prosperity has no future,” she said.