Two studies commissioned by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) back family’s concerns with Baytex Energy bitumen (tarsands) tank venting pollution

Two studies back family’s concerns with energy company by Sheila Pratt, January 3, 2014, Edmonton Journal
After a two-year struggle, Brian Labrecque is starting the new year a little more confident about resolving the air pollution problems that left his parents ill and forced seven family members from their homes. He said two independent studies ordered by the Alberta Energy Regulator appear to back up long-standing concerns shared by Labrecque and five families living near 86 tall, black storage tanks used to heat bitumen, 40 kilometres south of Peace River. “We have some scientific backing for our issues and the actions we’ve taken,” said Labrecque, whose family called this fall for a shutdown of Calgary-based Baytex Energy’s bitumen operation until the pollution issues are addressed.

One study by a Calgary geochemist discovered a higher sulphur content in the bitumen in the region’s Reno field, the site of Baytex operations. That could be a factor in odours that cause dizziness and other health problems in nearby residents, it says. A second study did an inventory of all sources of emissions on the Baytex site and pointed to release of fumes from the open-vented storage tanks as “conspicuously the most likely source of the odour impacts.”

The families for months have been asking Baytex to install a system to prevent vapours from escaping the tanks as the bitumen is heated to about 80 C to melt the product for trucking.

Baytex is complying with all regulations, director of stakeholder relations Andrew Loosley said Thursday. The company is also “looking forward” to making some improvements in the new year, he added. [As is typical in Alberta, the company seems only interested in talking and making endless promises while continuing to pollute, public health and harmed families be damned. The poisoning has gone on too long, complete with falsified studies as Encana did at Rosebud, and enabled by the regulators.]

Baytex wants to install a better system to collect the natural gas — called casing gas — that escapes when bitumen is pulled from the ground at the wellhead. That “in turn will lead to tank-top improvements” by allowing the company to collect natural gas vapours, he said. But the families want the company to collect other fumes that escape when the bitumen is heated and vented into the atmosphere.

To that end, they head to court next week to seek an injunction to halt Baytex’s operations in what could be a precedent-setting case.

While the energy regulator occasionally hands out stop-work orders to companies, it declined in this case. The AER says it has no authority, as there are no regulations governing emissions from bitumen storage tanks.

The families’ decision to head to court is a bold move, said their St. Albert lawyer, Keith Wilson. The basis for the case is the common law principle that no party can “interfere unreasonably with enjoyment of property,” Wilson said. “In Alberta, we all need to tolerate some level of impact from oil and gas, but this is too much.” [I disagree.  Impacts need to be properly assessed, planned for and mitigated before they occur. If the impacts and poisoning can’t be mitigated as is the case with the new high pressure horizontal and vertical hydraulic fracturing and bitumen projects, the regulators’ responsibility is to deny approval.]

Labrecque said the families were pleased the regulator agreed last July to conduct a public inquiry, but it will be many months before recommendations are made or action is taken, he noted. The AER called for several scientific studies as part of the inquiry, which will hold hearings in Peace River starting Jan. 21.

Like other companies in the area, Baytex uses the relatively new CHOPS process — cold heavy oil production with sand. The oil and sand mixture is augered out of the ground, put into tall tanks and heated with burners to separate the mixture and soften the bitumen.

In most in situ operations, steam is injected underground to melt the bitumen before it is pumped to the surface and put into a pipeline.

A study by Calgary engineering consultant Stephen Ramsay took a close look at all machinery on the Baytex site, including compressor engines, flare stacks and storage tanks and calculated the volume of emissions from each. The largest source “by an order of magnitude” was the open-vented tanks, he concluded. “The uncontrolled vent emissions from some of the storage tanks appear to be the leading cause of odour-related emissions,” Ramsay concludes in the study released late last month.

Geochemist engineer Martin Fowler noted in his comments: “The possibility the high sulphur content of the bitumen produced in the Three Creeks and Reno area might have something to do with the complaints of odours is reinforced by the analysis of the emissions and the descriptions of the odours.”

Labrecque said the sulphur finding “is important because we’ve been trying to tell people there’s a particular problem here.”

Loosley says Baytex hired outside consultants for their own air pollution studies and they confirmed “we meet all air quality standards.” But both the scientific studies for the AER were highly critical of the Baytex air quality studies. “We are looking forward to the hearings to put all the facts on the table,” Loosley added.

A major issue is the lack of regulations for emissions that occur when heating bitumen in the storage tanks, said Wilson. “This process (CHOPS) has fallen through the cracks because it’s not conventional oil and it’s not in situ.”

[There are no Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines for methane, ethane, propane, butane, etc forced to be released from hydraulic fracturing either. That doesn’t give companies and their non-acting regulators the right to allow unconventional, polluting oil and gas projects to contravene Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and poison environment and families. Albertans have been poisoned and lied to by companies, politicians and regulators for so many decades, they lost sight of what “responsible and sustainable” development is.]

Wilson hopes for quick action. “We have external, independent experts validating the residents’ concerns,” he said. “My interest is in getting this situation resolved; it’s a black eye for Alberta.” [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:

MERRY CHRISTMAS! Where are the regulators in Alberta? Fed up with toxic fumes: families suffering ill health ask Peace River court for 8 month injunction to shut down 46 wells and 86 venting tanks owned by Baytex Energy ]

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