Alberta - tar sands emissions linked to health damage

Emissions from tar sands bitumen production. Photo: Williamson via
Emissions from tar sands bitumen production. Photo: Williamson via
A report by Alberta's energy regulator links emissions from tar sands oil production with serious health impacts in the Peace River region that have forced families to flee their homes, reports Carol Linnitt. The findings reveal 'a huge information gap'.
Some doctors refused to provide care for residents claiming their medical problems were directly related to the emissions.

Families forced to evacuate their homes in Peace River, Alberta due to toxic fumes from bitumen development have finally received official recognition of their plight.

This week an Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) panel released a report confirming the odours released from a Baytex Energy Corp. tar sands processing facility may have been the cause of health complications.

Symptoms include chronic coughing, disorientation, nose and throat irritation, fatigue, weight loss, gray skin, and the formation of growths, that forced the families from their properties.

New extraction method causes hot plumes

Tar sands deposits in the Peace River region are extracted using a relatively new method called Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand or CHOPS. The process involves pumping heavy oil from the ground to heated surface-level tanks that produce emissions plumes.

"The Panel's main finding in this section is that odours from heavy oil operations in the Peace River area have the potential to cause some of the symptoms experienced by residents; therefore, these odours should be eliminated", the report states.

The panel also noted a lack of clear communication concerning air monitoring to local community members.

Health complications on the rise since 2011

Residents of the Peace River area have raised concerns regarding the fumes for nearly three decades but became more suspicious of the link to health complications in recent years and most notably after Baytex drilled new wells in 2011.

The Alberta government does not monitor the Peace River region's air for anything but sour gas and sulphur dioxide and has previously claimed there is no scientific evidence to connect the Baytex emissions to the community's symptoms.

In March of 2013 Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes visited the region and subsequently turned down Baytex's application to add new drill sites. He said:

"What I could detect was that there was something in the air that was different than the rest of Alberta. This kind of development was experiencing different emissions, and different air quality problems."

Pollution sufferers demid health care

As outlined in the recent AER report, Baytex now has four months to install pollution-control devices on its tanks.

The report also calls for further studies into the connection between oil emissions and negative health impacts and recommends Alberta Health "ensure that appropriate avenues exist to link local physicians with specialists in environmental health."

Some doctors refused to provide care for residents claiming their medical problems were directly related to the emissions.

During a recent AER public hearing in the area medical doctors admitted they hesitated to voice their suspicions about the fumes because of the potential consequences of appearing critical of industry.

Some doctors refused to provide care for residents claiming their medical problems were directly related to the emissions. Resident Karla Lebrecque told the panel her doctor called a local politician before agreeing to perform a blood test.

'I am not a tree-hugger'

In an open letter to Baytex Energy Labrecque wrote "I am not a tree hugger, environmental activist or anti-oil activist. Quite the opposite; I fully appreciate the prosperity that our region has experienced thanks in no small part to Alberta's thriving oil and gas industry."

She added: "while I believe that Alberta is rightfully an energy superpower, I'm also a mother tired of my family being poisoned by Baytex Energy's emissions and the Alberta Government allowing them to do so.

"I also believe it is possible for Baytex Energy to extract oil from the ground responsibly while simultaneously growing their company and that the same time protecting the health of those that live near and around their sites."

Alberta's monitoring system is inadequate

Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema says what's happening in the Peace River region highlights the uncertainties surrounding the extraction and processing of bitumen. He wrote:

"The troubling thing the report showed was that the government has a huge information gap when it comes to the impacts of tar sands development.

"The report shows that tar sands impacts will be different given differences in things like geology and wind patterns and regulations should, but don't, currently reflect that. It also shows that, once again, Alberta's monitoring system is inadequate."


Carol Linnett writes for Desmog Canada, where this article was first published.

See also: and Desmog Canada

Note: For consistent nomenclature The Ecologist has used the term 'tar sands' throughout this article, in places replacing the original term 'oil sands'.