Can a Big Oil-Funded Regulator Fix Peace River, Alberta's Toxic Air Problem?
After residents of the rural Reno and Three Creeks communities testified before the big-oil funded Alberta Energy Regulator that they have been experiencing a litany of terrifying health problems due to emissions from the oil operations near their...
The Baytex plant in Alberta. All photos by Alan Gignoux.
In late January, residents of the rural Reno and Three Creeks communities testified before the Alberta Energy Regulator that they have been experiencing a litany of terrifying health problems due to the emissions of heavy oil operations near their homes. Few regulations exist for the main type of oil extraction used in the Peace River area, so local companies like Baytex and Shell are legally permitted to vent carcinogenic bitumen vapours in massive quantities. Consequently, as the region’s bitumen industry boomed, seven families were forced to abandon their homes. They have developed allergies to their houses and belongings, which are soaked with toxins and give off a hydrocarbon stench. Some impacted residents have remained behind, though they regularly experience agonizing and debilitating side effects from exposure to toxic vapours.
After hundreds of complaints from residents, an inquiry into Peace River’s emissions was undertaken by the Alberta Energy Regulator. This newly minted corporation now has total jurisdiction over approving, monitoring, and regulating oil sands projects. It is run by and “100 percent funded by industry,” chaired by a registered oil lobbyist, and replaces the former ERCB while taking on the regulatory duties of the Ministry of Environment.
An AER panel issued a report of recommendations for Peace River, which is the first major test of their mandate. The report is both an opportunity for the corporation to win over skeptics and an early indication of how they may act over the coming years.
The report acknowledges that Peace River’s bitumen operations have affected regional health, and that there are significant problems with the regional air monitoring program and the regulator itself. It offers an ambitious list of recommendations that may eventually put an end to the troubling era of openly venting carcinogens like benzene and reduced sulphur compounds into the air around Peace River.
Yet, at the same time, the report undermines its own recommendations. It uses weak language, short-lists the symptoms that residents testified to, and offers a baseless dismissal of evidence that Alberta’s laboratories have systemic problems. Worst of all, the report recommends temporary measures—like burning off all emissions—which may actually make life worse for some of the residents who have stayed behind.
The report is the first step in a long, bureaucratic process, and any real action is still months away. Its recommendations are not legally binding, so they may be accepted, modified, or rejected by another branch of the corporation. “The hearing commissioners operate independently from the operational side of the business, so the recommendations were given to our CEO on Monday,” explained Bob Curran, the AER’s spokesperson. “We will be issuing a formal response to the report by April 15th.”
Nonetheless, after half a decade of complaints, the report was vindicating to some residents. It concludes that, “odours caused by heavy oil operations in the Peace River area need to be eliminated to the extent possible as they have the potential to cause some of the health symptoms of area residents,” and encourages industry to “move towards a zero emissions aspirational goal.” It argues that the AER should “prohibit venting from all facilities” and force companies to install vapour recovery units on their bitumen tanks within four months of this recommendation being accepted.
It also acknowledges the existence of “a regulatory gap that prevents the AER from enforcing against most hydrocarbon odours,” and suggests that the draft of a regulation that could fill this gap should be approved quickly. I asked the AER’s spokesperson how long this will take, but he didn’t have an answer.
Karla Labrecque, whose family abandoned Reno after they suffered from airborne toxins, was pleased that the “report does agree with what we’ve been saying all along. They are saying that the tank-top emissions are causing the health problems.” She told me that, “as long as they fill that regulatory gap, I think it will make industry behave like a better neighbour.”
Dolls and toys strewn about the abanonded Labrecque home.
Vivianne Laliberte, another Reno resident who was forced to evacuate her home, doesn’t share in this cautious optimism. “Unfortunately, this has been a horrible experience in which we have lost trust in government, the regulator, and industry, because none of them have told the truth. They have told us things and then we find out they’re doing the opposite too many times. I think they focus on PR and how to spin things so that people think things are happening, but they’re not. And that’s where they put their energy.”
She also noted that the report leaves some of its most important recommendations open to interpretation. It suggests that the AER should eliminate odours “to the extent possible” and that gas should captured “where feasible.” She argued, “That’s where the companies are going to be left off the hook. If you say ‘where feasible,’ who’s going to decide where it’s feasible? How much money do they have to be making before it’s feasible?”
“If things don’t change, there will be many more people who will realize that they have the same choice we had: You can stay and be sick, or you can leave,” Laliberte warned.
Another significant language choice in the report is its many references to “odours,” and its assertion that odours, rather than emissions or vapours or toxins, are causing health problems. The report champions the assessment of Dr. Donald Davies, a former DOW Chemical toxicologist, who argued that “people are not being ‘poisoned,’ but… the symptoms are a response to the odours.”
Dr. Margaret Sears, another expert witness, believes there is no medical basis for the argument that odours from toxic chemicals, rather than their actual toxic properties, are causing health problems. To her, this is a distinction that, “as someone who works with medical doctors and does medical research, I don’t understand. They said that there were health effects but they were not direct, toxic effects. I don’t believe that there’s really a strong medical basis for this distinction between direct toxic effects and other health effects in this case.”
Nonetheless, the AER’s report recommends setting air quality objectives according to odour perception. This initiative does not take into account odourless chemicals and residents who testified that even when no odour can be detected, they have experienced emission-related symptoms. “We detect the aches and pains in our body before we smell it as it’s cropping up in the air,” Carmen Langer, a resident of Three Creek, told me.
“It’s not an odour that’s going to kill us,” said Langer. “If we had to live with a slight odour it might be uncomfortable to live with and unnecessary, but we can live it. It’s not going to kill us. These emissions are killing us.”
Emissions on Fire
The report has set the ultimate goal of conserving all emissions and gasses in closed-loop systems, yet it has encouraged companies to burn off their emissions until a time when this can be accomplished. This process, called flaring, is arguably no better than openly venting emissions. Flaring is already widely used by the five oil companies operating in Three Creeks, where the majority of Peace River’s complaints come from. While emissions have sharply declined over the last few years in Three Creeks, resident complaints have actually increased.
Carmen Langer, who has years of experience in the oil industry, explained that “the flaring is worse than the venting because you have heavy metals that fall out of the sky. At least with the venting, some of it does go out into the atmosphere and away from our lungs and our bodies.” Around his house, he said, “there’s hundreds and hundreds of flares—huge flares.”
He recalled that eight years ago, the Alberta government made a big push to reduce flaring but “now we’re back right up to big numbers. They’re too lazy to look for an ethical approach to fixing this problem and they just jump around from excuse to excuse and back and forth and repeat themselves even, repeat history trying to fix it. But they’re not trying to fix it; they’re just trying to convince the public that they’re trying to fix it in Alberta. It’s the Alberta way.”
Two days before I spoke to him, he had been forced out of his home by a heavy flaring incident. “Shell had a giant ball of fire in front of my house Saturday that covered the snow with black ash from a bunch of stuff they burnt off,” Langer said. “Because of the fallout, I had to leave my house immediately. It was so bad... I talked to Shell directly—they were burning off asphaltenes and condensate into the atmosphere, and man, oh man, did I get sick. I could hardly breathe.”
He added, “The general public is not aware of the kinds of heavy metals that come out of flaring, these are the things that cause real health effects and birth defects. The heavy metals just leech into the ground and contaminate everything.”
The AER has recommended that all emissions should be flared until an industry-led feasibility study is released on October 31st. The study will determine if gas can be contained in a closed loop and set a timeline for that goal. Karla Labrecque, whose family is suing for an injunction against Baytex, noted that “it’s still a feasibility study that’s done by industry—so it’s Baytex saying whether or not it’s feasible to take the flares out and pipe it, or totally contain it.”
The AER’s ultimate goal is to limit flaring to 3 percent of annual operating time, which Carmen Langer capitulates would “be a lot better.” Yet, time will tell if corporations want to meet this goal—currently, their flares are operating 24/7.
Monitoring For What?
The AER’s report recognizes the “need in the Peace River area for a more comprehensive and transparent monitoring program than what currently exists,” a truth which is reflected in the poor quality of the data in their report.
At the AER inquiry, Dr. Margaret Sears pointed out that labs in Alberta are not standardized and are free to decide how much of a chemical needs to be present in order for their tools to detect it. This allows private laboratories to cater their results to the needs of clients—they can prove, for instance, that no dangerous chemicals were detected in the air even if they are present. Chemistry Matters, the lab retained by Baytex to sample the air in Reno, states on their website that they set high limits “to protect our client’s interests.” Dr. Sears told me, “whenever I mention that to somebody who knows anything about toxicology, or environmental sciences, their jaw drops. It’s appalling.”
She argued that in order for labs in the province to produce useful data, these systemic issues need to be addressed. “I hope that the Alberta labs issue will come to the fore, and that they will re-examine these submissions that were given to them and readdress this.” Yet, she suspects that “it would be rather awkward for them to be doing that because what it means is the data before them is really not credible.”
The AER panel dismissed Dr. Sears’ concerns entirely, writing that “criticism about Alberta’s laboratories appeared to be based on general statements from unspecified studies and comments on a laboratory’s website” and that “with no credible evidence to support her views, the Panel is unable to draw any meaningful conclusions from her submissions and testimony.”
But public records show that this simply isn’t true. Dr. Sears explained to me that she “talked about that at huge lengths and went through all of the reports that were available to them. I extracted all of the detection limits; I extracted the limits for health concerns. I presented that really systematically, so for them to say that I didn’t substantiate that is flatly wrong. I put a lot of information before them in this regard, including Alberta reports, peer reviewed reports, standards for this kind of analysis, standards for interpretation... They obviously didn’t look at what I gave them. Or they forgot.”
In response to air monitoring woes, the AER report recommends the establishment of a joint air-monitoring program between residents, industry members, the AER, and government officials. Dr. Sears was pleased to see the AER “make strong recommendations about ongoing air monitoring” but added that, “if that’s going to be credible and helpful, they really need to improve the labs.”
The report also specifies that the regulator should “enhance its operational and enforcement presence in the Peace River area.” An AER presence in the town of Peace River would be a significant improvement over the regulator’s current practices and is something that residents have requested for years. Currently, the AER’s office is three and a half hours away by car, so when an incident occurs, the AER usually just calls members of industry and asks them if they had any toxic releases.
Yet, the proposed air-monitoring program isn’t an entirely new idea. While there is no such program in the Reno area, one has been active already for years in Three Creeks. So far, Carmen Langer has found, this program is of little help to residents. “We’ve had that in our community for over four years now, one of the best monitoring systems in probably the world. Where’s all that data? It’s not released,” he said.
While the report recommends increasing the AER’s transparency, the regulator hasn’t yet taken simple steps that would prove this intention to residents. “If they want to be transparent, they should get off their fucking asses and give us the raw data,” said Carmen Langer.
Vivianne Laliberte believes a proper monitoring program would need to be independent of industry and government, both federal and provincial. She explained: “With this monitoring, we can’t know if it’s being done right or not. We don’t have the ability to tell that. And so, basically, I think we just have to rely on what our bodies are telling us, and when we’re sick and when we’re having symptoms. We are the monitors now.”
If the AER manages to actually achieve its proposed goals and eliminate venting, reduce flaring, increase public transparency, encourage research, and establish a credible air-monitoring program, then the lives of those who have been impacted will improve dramatically. But the report is lacking in significant ways—especially for those who are hoping for quick relief from an ongoing, industrial hell. The recommended temporary measure of burning off emissions will do little to alleviate suffering and may actually make matters worse.
Additionally, concerns raised about oil-fume impaired driving, which Carmen Langer told me causes frequent tanker-truck rollovers in Three Creeks, and concerns about the growing Tervita oil-sands waste dump in the area, were acknowledged by the AER, though they offered no recommendations to deal with these issues.
More broadly, the AER panel demonstrated a preference for scientific studies that downplay the impacts of industry. They dismissed evidence that there are systemic flaws in Alberta’s laboratories and championed a study that insisted that odours, rather than toxins, can explain Peace River’s health problems – even though this theory doesn’t line up with the experiences of residents.
Additionally, as Peace River’s bitumen is the most sulphurous in Alberta, Dr. Sears noted that the AER needs to figure out a contingency plan for “what’s going to happen to all this sulphur. They were completely silent on that.” She added, “They’ve been completely silent all the way through on toxic metals. They’ve been completely silent on water quality.”
Karla Labrecque, though pleased with aspects of the report, believes she has developed such strong chemical sensitivities that she can never move back home, even if the long-term goal of flaring 3 percent of the time is realized. In spite of the report, her family is suing for an injunction to shut down Baytex’s Reno operations as well as compensation for their losses. “We’ve moved out of there, we’ve moved on. But there are still families left there, right? It needs to be fixed for the people who are left there so that they don’t have to move out.” To those left behind, Karla argued, waiting for months for the open-venting to stop is not a reasonable option.
But Vivianne Laliberte, who also abandoned her Reno home, can’t afford to sue and isn’t quite so optimistic. The AER’s recommendations come as little consolation for what has been taken from her and her family.
“Our home… I don’t think it can ever be lived in again,” she said. “Even when the wind is not coming from the installations, we get sick in the house because it’s been absorbed into the material. And even different health experts have told us that we’re not supposed to bring our stuff from the house—so we can’t bring our beds and things. We walk away from our home with no compensation; just walk away and we can’t even bring the contents. And we’re just supposed to go out and buy all this stuff as if we have a private bank or something. I don’t know, it’s mindboggling. My husband is going to be 65 this week. He’s in a wheel chair. We’re just supposed to do this somehow. I don’t know how.”
“I think all these houses that have been abandoned are condemned—they cannot be lived in,” she concluded. “With all we’ve been through, with all we’ve learnt, with all the lies we’ve been told, we’re not counting on that now. We try not to even think about it.”