Several families taking Baytex (Alberta oilsands company) to court over toxic emissions; Buyout packages allegedly silence Albertans struck with industry-related cancer

Baytex likely headed to court over emissions by Kelly Cryderman, November 28, 2013, The Globe and Mail
Farming families in northwestern Alberta say a dispute with a heavy-oil producer over emissions and odours is likely headed to court after the company refused this month to halt its operations. The case relates to broader environmental concerns that have spurred an Alberta Energy Regulator inquiry into what are described as tar and solvent-like odours and emissions associated with heavy-crude operations across the Peace River region, which holds smaller but still significant bitumen reserves compared with the Athabasca and Cold Lake oil-sands regions.

Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes said he’s frustrated there are continued concerns, and noted it’s likely the regulator’s inquiry to be completed next spring will lead to beefed-up environmental regulations. “My personal commitment to the people of that area was that we will get to the bottom of this and I will not rest until we do,” he said in an interview. Lawyer Keith Wilson represents several families who live near the hamlet of Reno who have complained for more than two years of health effects, including severe headaches and dizziness, from what they say are gases from the Baytex Energy Corp. bitumen site. On Thursday, he said the company is refusing his request to stop its heavy-oil operations. Mr. Wilson said he made the request because five families that have moved away due to health concerns want to go back to their homes for Christmas. He insists his clients are not against oil production if it’s done responsibly, but he’s preparing court documents needed to seek an injunction to halt operations at the Baytex site. … “Hence the reason the regulator and the Minister of Energy have taken such extraordinary steps to call an inquiry,” he said. “My clients are happy about that. But they’re kind of saying, ‘Hello, what about us?’”

However, the company said it’s in compliance with Alberta’s conditions for its project approval, has worked to improve its environmental performance, and an air quality study commissioned in response to local concerns found no readings beyond provincial “objectives.” “We want to make sure that our operations are operating in the most environmentally responsible manner for the benefit of the community, the province and our employees,” said Andrew Loosley, director of stakeholder relations for Baytex. Mr. Loosley also said a company plan to reduce emissions has been stymied in the regulatory process due to landowner objections – an assertion Mr. Wilson said is “nonsense.”
[Emphasis added]

Several families taking Alberta oilsands company to court over toxic emissions by Thomas Dias, November 28, 2013, 630 CHED
A lawyer for several families forced from their homes by oilsands emissions just south of Peace River, says the company plans to keep on doing what it’s doing. Keith Wilson sent a letter to Calgary based Baytex Energy back on November 20th, demanding that it cease operations by 5pm, Wednesday, at all of its bitumen wells and processing tanks until it could find a more responsible way of doing business, but the company advised Wilson a couple of hours after the deadline that it saw no reason to stop its operations. “Baytex has indicated that they intend to carry on with their production and they seem to think everything is okay,” remarked Wilson. “Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s okay and nor do my clients, and I think many Albertans don’t think that it’s okay for a company to keep the tops of their tanks open and be emitting emissions that are forcing people from their homes.”

Wilson points out there are 89 bitumen processing tanks within a one by five mile stretch, with Baytex taking the approach that their operations fully comply with all Alberta regulations. But Wilson says the problem with that is the regulations place “no restrictions” on the emissions the company is allowed to admit from open-vented, heated bitumen processing tanks. “They’ve chosen to carry on and be content with these people being out of their homes. And so, in order to get them back into their homes, we’ve got no choice but to bring an application before the Court of Queen’s Bench and put the facts and the law in front of a justice of that court and see if he or she thinks this is a circumstance in which an injunction can be granted.”

Meanwhile, the provincial government is said to be concerned about the situation and conducting an inquiry that will stretch into next year to see what regulatory changes are required. According to Wilson, the first family to leave has been out of their home for two years come December, and the other families have been out of their homes for over a year. “The financial impact on these families has been huge. Some of them are on the verge of bankruptcy. They’ve had to use their retirement savings. It’s affected their employability. This has been an absolute nightmare for these families. I’ve never seen anything like this in my 18+ years of representing landowners representing energy companies — never.”

Wilson says Baytex is damaging the reputation of the energy industry in Alberta, at a time when the province is trying to demonstrate to the world that the oilsands can be developed responsibly. “Everything was fine for over six years,” exclaimed Wilson. “And then suddenly a new operator comes in and changes the production methods. They significantly increased the temperature at which these tanks are processing the bitumen; all 89 of them by the way.”

Wilson says his clients also believe Baytex has added a chemical thinner to allow the oil to flow more quickly — all of this causing a serious increase in toxic emissions. “Baytex keeps saying everything’s closed up, so I keep telling my clients go get the pictures. So we went out on Sunday with a telephoto lens. Picture, after picture, after picture, after picture showing these caps wide open and you even see the gases come out. So I don’t know who Baytex thinks they’re fooling? They keep saying everything’s sealed when we’ve got picture after picture showing open emissions, and why the regulator lets them do that is just beyond me, but I guess that’s why we have courts. You shouldn’t have to go to the law to get the company to do what’s right.” [Emphasis added]

Peace River families forced from homes demand energy company stop emissions, hire lawyer, Harm from unusual oils sands production technique not good for industry reputation Press Release by Stop Baytex, November 20, 2013
Several families forced from their homes by emissions from Baytex Energy’s bitumen processing facilities are taking a stand.  They say they have been out of their homes for too long.  They have now hired a lawyer to force Baytex shut in its bitumen wells so they can return to their homes and lands. Brain Labrecque is one of the landowners.  “We all welcomed the bitumen wells when they first came in.  We thought these were ordinary oil and gas wells like you see everywhere in Alberta.  But they aren’t.  These wells all have large heated bitumen processing tanks that vent gasses into the air we breathe,” said Brian. Baytex Energy is currently operating 14 bitumen processing sites connected to dozens of bitumen oil sands wells along a narrow 5 mile strip of land.  Baytex does not operate a closed system like most oil sands plants do in Fort McMurray.  “Our homes and lands are right in the middle of these emissions.  The problem stems from how Baytex heats the raw bitumen to high temperatures—over 175 degrees—in open-vented tanks,” said Alain Labrecque, Brian’s cousin.  The families are tired of broken promises and want action.  “My mom and dad, my aunt, my uncle and my cousins have all been out their homes for too long.  We thought Baytex was going to fix the problem but they haven’t”, said Brain Labrecque.

“As more tanks were added, we started to get severe headaches, dizziness, loss of balance, throat and nose problems—especially at night when the air is still.  When we started seeing our young kids, ages 3 and 4, getting the same symptoms we knew we had to leave.  Everything in our house smells like a bad mix of chemical solvents and tar—the kids clothes, the bedding, their toys—we had to leave everything behind,” said Karla Labrecque, Alain’s wife. The Labrecques have hired Edmonton-based environmental and land rights lawyer Keith Wilson to help them. Today, Wilson issued a formal demand that Baytex shut in its bitumen facilities and wells within seven days.  “There is no justification for Baytex’s continuing to vent these gasses.  Producing this oil is not more important than these families,” said Wilson.  “Baytex needs to stop its operations now.  Let these people back in to enjoy their lands and homes.  Baytex needs to implement a closed system without toxic emissions or leave the oil in the ground until it can,” Wilson added.  Alain Labrecque says he is surprised by the way Baytex is carrying on when Baytex knows they have a problem.  “With the world spot light on our oil industry and all of the talk in the news of ‘responsible energy development’ and ‘social licence to operate’, we just don’t understand why Baytex keeps venting these known toxic emissions right in the middle of our lands and family homes, especially since these are oil sands wells,” said Alain.  “What Baytex is doing is obviously not good for our families but it’s also not good for Alberta or Canada,” he added.

Two weeks ago I drove up to see what these families are experiencing.  In all of my years of touring well sites, batteries, and gas plants etc, I have never before encountered such high levels of emissions.  I was in the area for 3 hours.  I ended up with a massive headache and my tongue was tingling and tasted like I had metal in my mouth. These folks have had to abandon their homes.  This is just plain wrong.

Thank you. Keith Wilson

Buyout packages allegedly silence Albertans struck with industry-related cancer by Krystle Alarcon, November 5, 2013, Vancouver Observer
Locals living close to oil and gas projects in what is known as Alberta’s Industrial Heartland are not surprised that a recent study found that chemicals in the air cause blood-related cancers. “There’s many people that have been diagnosed with cancer. Many of them have left. Some of them have died,” said Anne Brown, who lives in the Riverside Park subdivision, near Fort Saskatchewan, one of four counties part of the Industrial Heartland. The Nobel prize-winning chemistry department of the University of California in Irvine conducted the study. It found 77 volatile pollutants in the air, including carcinogens.  Leukaemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma among men “stood out statistically,” said Isobel Simpson, one of the chemists involved in the study. Simpson said she can only speculate that the blood-related cancers were prevalent in men because they might have worked in the industries.

The industrial area includes 582 km2 space where more than 40 chemical, petrochemical, oil and gas facilities have been established since the 1950s. Sometimes referred to as “Upgrader Alley,” it is the largest hydrocarbon processing area in Canada and is located about 30 km northeast of Edmonton. Brown was a member of Citizens for Responsible Development, a group that spoke at the National Energy Board hearings in 2010 against French oil giant Total that wanted tto build a bitumen upgrader in the area. The upgrader was approved, but is slated to continue in Fort MacMurray instead. Two other projects that will upgrade a total of 410,000 barrels of bitumen per day to crude oil have been approved. At the hearings, the group voiced their concerns about  the increasing rates of cancer they noticed in the community. “Their quality of life was just robbed from them. Some of them have loved ones who passed on with cancer now. After many years of fighting and struggling, they were able to get out. But it took years of their lives to be taken out,” Brown said. They were ‘taken out’ by buyout deals, known as the Voluntary Residential Property Purchase Program. Residents living in the area can apply for the package if their home is close to one or multiple industries.

Mike Hudema, an environmental activist with Greenpeace, said the program silences many of the residents diagnosed with cancer, effectively keeping the issue away from the public eye. “A lot of people left the area because there had been people who had been diagnosed with cancer, and basically took out buyout packages and signed a non-disclosure deal where they can’t talk about it,” he said. Like Brown, Hudema criticized the Alberta government for knowing about the cancer for years. “Again, we have the Alberta government really trying to downplay concerns and not doing anything to try to address any of it,” he said. The province’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development monitors the air quality in the area daily, said Nikki Booth, a spokesperson for the ministry. It conducts tests along with the non-profit Fort Air Partnership, whose board members include people associated with Shell Scotford and Dow Chemical, which run facilities in the area. “Based on the level of that monitoring, we don’t see any evidence that people in the Heartland region are exposed to any of the chemicals indicated in the paper,” she said. “We welcome and review all these reports and it is important to the body of knowledge in the area. And we’re fortunate in Alberta that it’s rated as low-risk 94% of the time,” she added.

Chart from the University of Irvine study that found high rates of blood-related cancer among men. “Because the toxicity of Benzene over the long term isn’t well understood, we’re recommending already reducing the emissions of known carcinogens in this area. In other words, not waiting to see more cancers. There’s a lag of when you’re exposed to carcinogens to when the cancer develops. So take a prudent approach and reduce the emissions,” Simpson said. The World Health Organization released research almost the same time as the Irvine study, which concluded that air pollution as a whole causes cancer and must be designated in general as a carcinogen. The organization already linked Benzene to cancer prior to the over 1000 worldwide studies pooled together for the research.

But the government has no plan to heed the Irvine study’s recommendations. “Their call for a reduction… our numbers don’t show that those numbers are what people are being exposed to in the Industrial Heartland,” Booth said. Eriel Deranger, of the of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said her community also has seen a higher rate of cancer – despite being 160 km downstream of the nearest project. Her people believe they are acquiring cancer because they hunt and rely on the land for food, she said. “A lot of the same compounds that are found in the Industrial Heartland area are being found in high concentration levels in the species that we’re eating,” Deranger said.

Pack your bags, find another place to live
So why not just move? Critics would argue it’s a simple enough solution to to pack one’s bags. Browne said that she was once actually part of the Land Trust Society, which oversees the buyout programs. When her subdivision was ruled out of the application, she resigned. During the 2010 NEB hearings, people were conflicted over whether to participate, hoping not to jeopardize their applications for the buyout, Brown said. “If you’re desperate and you want to get out, you may not go to that hearing so that your name will stay on the top of the list. So you may give up your fundamental right to speak at this hearing. For a chance to possibly get out,” she said. Even if she was eligible, moving isn’t that simple – her youngest son is still in high school and her husband, who works in the Fort Saskatchewan county, is up for retirement soon. “We have participated in every process that we possibly could have in and to have our concerns heard since the day we heard about this development in May 2001. “It has consumed our lives but even to this day, we hope that we will be able to protect what we have – our quality of life, our health, and our property value,” she said. Deranger cited both research and traditional beliefs to explain why the Athebasca Chipeweyan First Nation decide to stay put. “You can’t debate science. Science says that the planet sustains us. And the things that sustain us, we look at as Mother Earth. “For First Nations people to just move away, for us it’s like abandoning our mother.” [Emphasis added]

Wanted: Seven ballerinas and an engineer to monitor oil-patch by Liberal Communications, November 6, 2013
A key legislation, Protecting Alberta’s Environment Act, which would create a new agency responsible for monitoring Alberta’s environment, has passed a key stage into becoming law, meaning Bill 31 can no longer be amended. The bill passed final reading last night. Alberta Liberal Environment and Sustainable Resource Development critic Laurie Blakeman made an amendment to the bill will establish the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency. … The bill also establishes a Science Advisory Panel, which would review monitoring and reporting activities of the new environmental agency. Blakeman’s amendment included a set of qualifications that the eight-member panel, must meet before being named to the group. But the Redford Conservatives voted against that amendment, and did so without debate or comment from the Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. “There was stunned silence in the face of a solution as obvious and pragmatic as ours. All the PC backbenchers could do was toe-the-party line,” says Blakeman. “The issue is that’s this government has no requirement that members of the Science Advisory Panel include scientists. My amendment is based the European Environment Agency, to require appointees to have environmental science expertise.”

Blakeman says the Redford Conservatives missed a golden opportunity to show the government is serious about environmental protection, independent monitoring, and evidence-based policy. She notes that this move undermines the credibility of Alberta’s energy sector internationally. “The government’s commitment to the environment is just talk until it takes decisive action,” says Blakeman. “How can Alberta expect to be taken seriously when anyone, including seven ballerinas and a scientist, could make up a key scientific advisory panel?” [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:

Alberta government to spend $9.2 million on mental health support for flood victims, but no support for victims of water, land and air pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas

US EPA Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response Final Guidance for Assessing and Mitigating the Vapor Intrusion Pathway from Substance Sources to Indoor Air (External Review Draft)

Air Pollution and Cancer Spikes linked in Alberta; Alberta’s Oil Legacy: Bad Air and Rare Cancers, Sickening carcinogens now saturate Industrial Heartland, study finds

What Lies Beneath: CCTV America Investigation into Hydraulic Fracturing Interviews Alberta landowners, including former oil engineer, fracing fumes damaging health

University Alberta Researchers say Alberta drastically under-reports workplace injuries

Baytex Gag Order and Can You Silence a Child? Inside the Hallowich Case; Peut-on empêcher un enfant de parler? Le cas des Hallowich

Alberta to complete review on urban oil drilling, Planned well in Calgary suburb sparks controversy

Baytex submits action plan to ERCB following accidental land spraying with crude oil ]

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