Association tells Peace River doctors it will support them in face of intimidation by Sheila Pratt, February 18, 2014, Edmonton Journal
Doctors in the Peace River area must feel free to treat and advocate for local residents who fear their health problems are connected to heavy oil emissions, say both the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Alberta Medical Association. “What concerns me is that people feel they can’t speak out,” said Trevor Theman, president of the college, the body responsible for enforcing the doctors’ code of ethics. “One role of the physician is to be an advocate for the patient and to bring issues to the attention of someone who can do something about it,” Theman said, adding that doctors must also be “responsible” in their public comments.
Last month, a public inquiry in Peace River heard that some area residents had difficulty getting medical treatment when they told doctors their health problems might be connected to heavy odours and vapours coming off heated bitumen tanks that are operated nearby by Calgary-based Baytex Energy. Their symptoms included dizziness, headaches, blackouts and cognitive problems.
The inquiry, called by the Alberta Energy Regulator, also heard that area doctors feared negative consequences for their careers if they spoke out about the issue, citing the case of John O’Connor, a doctor who faced discipline charges after he spoke out about high cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, north of the oilsands, in 2003-04. Theman noted the college did not discipline O’Connor after it investigated the four complaints against him brought by Health Canada in 2007. By November 2009, the college had cleared O’Connor of all charges, including the charge of “causing undue alarm” about cancer rates in the First Nations community.
Dr. Allan Garbutt, president of the AMA, the doctors’ professional association, said he was not surprised the O’Connor case still resonates among Alberta doctors. “They took a big hammer at a small insect,” Garbutt said. “That will intimidate a whole lot of people for a long time.”
Last month, the AMA sent a special message to doctors in Peace River, though a “physician leader,” reminding them that “support is available if you are being pressured.”
“We made a special effort to make sure they knew about that, if the Baytex issues were causing problems,” said Garbutt, adding that so far no doctor has contacted his association. [Of course not. Where has the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons been during so many years of so many Albertans poisoned by the oil and gas industry, everywhere, not just in the tarsands or by Baytex?]
Garbutt also noted there’s little expertise, especially among family physicians, about the effects of pollution from oil and gas operations. Since the subject is not well studied, diagnosis could be difficult.
Neither Garbutt nor Theman would comment on specific cases raised at the hearing, including evidence that one doctor phoned a local MLA before agreeing to take a blood test from a resident of the Reno oilfield. The college cannot say publicly whether it is investigating that concern or others arising at the inquiry, Theman noted. The physician code of ethics cites a duty to protect the health of patients, the community and the environment, as well as an obligation to act, said Theman.
“The code of ethics also recognizes a doctor needs to be responsible in terms of what you say,” he added. “To raise a question, to say that patients are coming to me with concerns about their health and the emissions, that’s no problem. You need to be responsible in your remarks, but you should not be afraid to speak.” Margaret Sears, who holds a PhD in chemical engineering and has expertise in environmental health, was hired by the regulator to provide independent advice. Her report outlined the doctors’ concerns.
“Communications with public health officials and medical professionals revealed a universal recognition that petrochemical emissions affect health,” Sears wrote. “However, this was countered by a marked reluctance to speak out.” That reluctance stems from fear of consequences, lack of data about exposure levels and a lack of expertise, she wrote. “Physicians are, quite frankly, afraid to to diagnose health conditions linked to the oil and gas industry,” wrote Sears.
Last week, a coalition of 26 concerned groups called on the AMA to support doctors who “fear retribution,” which could interfere with their ability to advocate on behalf of their patients. “Oil shouldn’t get in the way of health,” said Carman Langer, a member of the Three Creeks Residents Group. [Emphasis added]
Higher-ups back doctors’ advocacy rights in heavy oil emissions cases by Sheila Pratt, Februay 18, 2014, Edmonton Journal
[Refer also to:
Alberta workplace fatalities close to record numbers in 2013, led by a near doubling of fatalities caused by occupational disease
Health Report: Big Oil Bad Air Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas by Jim Morris, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, February 18, 2014, jointly reported by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel
The story behind ‘Big Oil, Bad Air’ by Jim Morrisemail, David Hasemyer and Lisa Song, February 18, 2014
Saturated with oil money, Texas legislature saved industry from pollution rule by David Hasemyer, Ben Wiederemail and Alan Suderman, February 18, 2014, The Centre for Public Integrity
That’s not how Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger sees it. The 77-year-old nun-turned-activist speeds through the Eagle Ford in her white Honda Civic, intent on exposing the ills she believes have been forced on residents by the oil and gas industry.
“They do not like to complain,” she said. “They don’t want to make trouble. They don’t know they’re being taken advantage of.”
Most of the Eagle Ford’s residents live in small towns or on farms and have scant influence on lawmakers. About 23 percent have incomes below the federal poverty line, compared to 17 percent statewide and 15 percent nationally.
“Let’s be blunt. That is not really a body of voters that the power structure in Austin [the state capital] has any real concern about,” said Larry Soward, a former member of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. [Emphasis added]
Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents (Condensed Version)
Eight-month investigation reveals that the Texas State Legislature is more intent on protecting the industry than protecting residents’ health by Jim Morris, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, February 18, 2014, Insideclimatenews
From their porch, the Buehrings can see and smell this gold rush. Three nearby processing facilities have permission to release 189 tons of volatile organic compounds, a class of toxic chemicals that includes benzene and formaldehyde, each year. That’s more than Valero’s Houston Oil Refinery disgorged in 2012. They also are allowed to release 142 tons of nitrogen oxides and 95 tons of carbon monoxide per year. …
Our investigation reveals a Texas system that protects industry more than the public:
Air monitoring is so flawed that Texas knows little about pollution in the Eagle Ford, an area nearly twice the size of Massachusetts.
Thousands of facilities are allowed to self-audit their emissions, so authorities have no idea how much pollution they release.
Companies that break the law are rarely fined. Of 284 complaints Eagle Ford residents filed in a recent four-year period, only two resulted in fines despite 164 documented violations.
Texas lawmakers have cut the state’s budget for environmental regulation since the Eagle Ford boom began, from $555 million in 2008 to $372 million in 2014.
Since 2009, the number of unplanned toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production increased 100 percent statewide.
Texas officials are often industry defenders, so residents of drilling areas are usually left to fend for themselves. Oil money is so ingrained in Texas culture that people like the Buehrings tend to become collateral damage. …
But a memorandum obtained through a public records request indicates the TCEQ knows its air monitoring is flawed. “The executive director has extensive records of underestimated or previously undetected emissions from oil and gas sites. These are not isolated instances but have occurred statewide and indicate a pattern,” Richard A. Hyde, then deputy director of the TCEQ’s Office of Permitting and Registration, wrote in the Jan. 7, 2011, memo. Hyde, now executive director, declined to comment.
Since drilling came to Karnes County, Lynn Buehring’s asthma has worsened. Instead of using a breathing machine once or twice a month, she sometimes needs it every day. She has migraines so intense they’ve induced temporary blindness.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Shelby Buehring said. “Nobody is listening to us.…I hate it here.”
But others say the boom is worth it. “The Eagle Ford Shale is the biggest economic investment zone in the entire world,” said Steve Everley, who works in Washington, D.C., for Energy in Depth…. [Emphasis added]
Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Air Emissions on Texas Residents (Full version) by Lisa Song, Jim Morris and David Hasemyer, February 18, 2014, Inside Climate News
In addition to the wells near their home, there are at least nine oil and gas production facilities. Little is known about six of the facilities, because they don’t have to file their emissions data with the state. Air permits for the remaining three sites show they house 25 compressor engines, 10 heater treaters, 6 flares, 4 glycol dehydrators and 65 storage tanks for oil, wastewater and condensate. Combined, those sites have the state’s permission to release 189 tons of volatile organic compounds, a class of toxic chemicals that includes benzene and formaldehyde, into the air each year. That’s about 12 percent more than Valero’s Houston Oil Refinery disgorged in 2012.
Those three facilities also are allowed to release 142 tons of nitrogen oxides, 95 tons of carbon monoxide, 19 tons of sulfur dioxide, 8 tons of particulate matter and 0.31 tons of hydrogen sulfide per year. …
Much of the concern has centered on how methane and fracking chemicals can contaminate drinking water. But scientists say air pollution is an equally serious problem that receives less attention, in part because it’s so difficult to track.
Plumes of contaminated air move with the wind. Some of the chemicals break down in sunlight or react with other pollutants to form new compounds. The evidence disappears quickly, while health effects may linger.
People who live close to oil and gas development—whether in Texas’ Eagle Ford, Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale or Wyoming’s Green River Basin—tend to report the same symptoms: nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, body rashes and respiratory problems. …
Chemicals released during oil and gas extraction include hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas found in abundance in Eagle Ford wells; volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, a known carcinogen; sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which irritate the lungs; and other harmful substances such as carbon monoxide and carbon disulfide. VOCs also mix with nitrogen oxides emitted from field equipment to create ozone, a major respiratory hazard.
Studies show that, depending on the concentration and length of exposure, these chemicals can cause a range of ailments, from minor headaches to neurological damage and cancer. …
Scientists “really haven’t the foggiest idea” how oil and gas development affects public health, said Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University. Bernstein blames the information gap on a lack of monitoring and research, particularly in the rural, less affluent communities where most of the drilling occurs.
“It’s not as though there isn’t reason to be concerned,” he said. “These are industrial activities with known emissions that are known to affect people’s health.” …
Myra complained to the TCEQ in 2012, and the agency cited Marathon Oil for operating a broken flare and failing to report thousands of pounds of unauthorized emissions at its Sugarhorn Central gas processing plant. But Marathon paid no penalty. “I feel like we’re expendable,” Myra said.
The Cernys have sued Marathon, hoping to get enough money to move away from the drilling. …
Marathon had monitoring done around the family’s house in 2012, prior to the filing of the lawsuit, and found “no levels of air contaminants in excess of regulatory limits,” Warren wrote. “The TCEQ conducted further visits to the Sugarhorn site in 2013 and has closed out that case.” …
More often than not, residents’ complaints lead nowhere, as Fred and Amber Lyssy discovered in April 2013.
The Lyssys raise pigs, goats and cattle on a 564-acre organic farm in Wilson County outside Floresville. The land is owned by Fred’s mother, Agnes Ramos, who for years has refused offers to lease the mineral rights for drilling. Some neighboring landowners have accepted, however, and the Lyssys’ land is now surrounded by wells, flares and holding tanks.
When foul odors swept across the farm, the Lyssys suspected a gas processing plant less than a mile away. Fred stopped letting his livestock graze on the pasture next to the facility and moved his and Amber’s bedroom to the opposite side of the house. They worry about how their three children—ages seven months, 3½ and 6—will be affected by the pollution. They fear it will jeopardize their pledge to provide organic food to their customers.
“We are about liberty and freedom,” Amber said, “but they are trespassing with their emissions.”
The Lyssys’ anxiety mounted when six of their dogs—Anatolian Pyrenees that they use to work the farm—suffered mysterious, agonizing deaths. Five died within a few days of one another in February 2013. Amber said they began vomiting, scratching their heads bloody and whining for no apparent reason. Their veterinarian ruled out common substances like antifreeze and rat poison but could provide no explanation. The cost of a necropsy barred any more definitive answers.
After the Lyssys complained to the TCEQ, inspectors made two visits to the area. Using an infrared camera and handheld gas monitors, they detected hydrogen sulfide and other unspecified emissions coming from a Hunt Oil complex with 12 crude oil tanks and a flare.
A Hunt executive told the TCEQ he had no idea there were leaks and promised to repair the vents and oil tank hatches responsible for the emissions. The agency was satisfied and did not cite the company for any violations.
Three weeks later, the investigators returned for a third visit and again found hydrogen sulfide leaks, according to a TCEQ report. Again, Hunt—a private company with $4 billion in revenue last year, according to Forbes—promised to get things fixed.
The investigation was closed in August with a notation that there were “no violations.” The Lyssys’ sixth Pyrenees, Big Boy, died in November after showing the same symptoms as their other dogs. [Emphasis added]