AER hearing into Baytex bitumen emissions underway in Peace River; families hope the AER will make the company clean up

Alberta’s Tar Sands Pollution Refugees, ‘Gassed’ by oil sands operations, families say they’ve been forced to evacuate by Andrew Nikiforuk, March 2, 2013,

“I blame the ERCB (Alberta’s energy regulator). They are not doing proper monitoring and are withholding data. They are responsible for this going on for years. They have lied to us more than the company. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”

Oil production in Peace River area needs special regulations, public inquiry told by Sheila Pratt, January 22, 2014, Edmonton Journal
Oil production in the Peace River area needs special regulations partly because it has higher sulphur content than reserves elsewhere in the province, an unprecedented public hearing by the Alberta Energy Regulator was told Tuesday. More than 75 people — area farmers, lawyers and families who left their homes because of ill health — gathered at the Bell Petroleum Centre for the inquiry, called after then energy minister Ken Hughes expressed concerns about odour and health problems in the Reno field run by Calgary-based Baytex Energy.

“If we know its high in sulphur, why is permission to approve its production given under conventional oil and gas rules?”
resident Donna Dahm asked the panel. The need for new regulations, which would also apply to Baytex’s process of heating bitumen in surface storage tanks, is emerging as a key issue at the inquiry, the first held by the new AER into a health-related issue. The vapours created as the bitumen is heated to separate the oil and sand are not covered by conventional oil regulations and have not been well studied, the hearing was told. (In most in situ production, bitumen is heated underground by steam injection, so the vapours don’t get to the surface.)

Residents abandoned their homes and watched their cattle get sick after Baytex began operating in the region two years ago.

Engineer Reid Glenn said bitumen vapours contain benzene and toluene, among other chemicals which can cause health problems. While some companies in the area remove the vapours, not all do. “You do not have a mandated vapour recovery system and this is the essence of the problem,” Glenn told the inquiry. ”These fumes are not being handled prudently.”

Rather than the cheaper storage tanks, companies should use stronger pressure vessels for heating the bitumen, he said. “The safe thing to do is have a pressure vessel that will capture the vapours and store them underground,” Glenn told the inquiry. [And what when the toxic vapors begin leaking to surface?] Resident Carman Langer said no one is monitoring emissions from the storage tanks. Residents have no choice about accepting the risks when new wells are drilled near their farms, said Dahm. When there are problems, “we are collateral damage,” she added.

Geochemist Martin Fowler, who told the hearing about the higher sulphur content, said the bitumen vapours are not well studied, unlike emissions such as hydrogen sulphide.

“Why not put a can of oil on a burner in this meeting room and everyone would understand the odours we face,” resident Andy Labrecque, one of those forced to leave his farm, said in an interview during a break at the hearings. “This would be an improvement in their research on bitumen fumes.”

Baytex said they are prepared to take “all reasonable measures” to use best practices at their operations. [Who interprets what is “reasonable?” Baytex? The 100% industry funded AER? Baytex and the AER (previously ERCB when it was only 67% funded by industry) allowed the company to poison the air and harm livestock and families for two years. Emphasis added]

Hearing into Baytex bitumen emissions gets underway in Peace River by Edmonton Journal, January 21, 2014
A hearing is starting Tuesday in Peace River to investigate and make recommendations about odours and emissions linked to heavy oil operations in the Peace River area. The Alberta Energy Regulator has established a panel of hearing commissioners to run the proceeding over the next two weeks involving bitumen operations run by Baytex Energy Inc. Five families have left their homes after claiming emissions from the oilsands operation caused health problems, such as dizziness headaches and cognitive impairment. The residents hope the regulator will establish new rules requiring the company to clean up emissions from heating bitumen in storage tanks. The bitumen is heated to melt it so it can be sent by truck to upgraders. Baytex Energy has said the company has already made changes in response to residents’ concerns and commissioned an independent study that showed the air is safe. Baytex has also committed to installing vapour recovery equipment on all of its wells in the area. [Emphasis added]

Some Alberta doctors reluctant to treat oilsands patients, report says, Family physicians around Peace River, Alberta are reluctant to point finger at oil industry for health complaints, expert report says by Peter Edwards, January 20, 2014, Toronto Star
Some family physicians around the oilsands area of Peace River, Alta., are reluctant to treat patients who draw connections between the burgeoning oil industry and their personal health problems, says a report commissioned by the Alberta Energy Regulator. The report was prepared by Dr. Margaret Sears, an Ottawa-based PhD who specializes in toxicology and public health, for public hearings scheduled to begin in Peace River on Tuesday.
In her report, Sears writes: “There were reports from various sources that physicians would not diagnose a relationship between bitumen exposures and chronic symptoms.” She continues: “Physician care was refused for individuals suggesting such a connection, and that analytical services were refused by an Alberta laboratory when told that the proposed analysis was to investigate exposure to emissions related to bitumen extraction.”

Baytex spokesperson Andrew Loosely said the company is committed to continuous improvement [Refer below to letter by Wilson Law Office to the AER, January 20, 2014] and has hired experts in environmental safety. Loosely praised the efforts taken to call the inquiry and added that there are many opinions to be heard besides those of Sears. “She is one of many people who have contributed to this public inquiry,” Loosely said. … “Baytex has been working very hard [Refer below to letter by Wilson Law Office to the AER, January 20, 2014] to implement solutions to minimize emissions in the Reno area,” the website states.

Sears wrote that she interviewed local residents for her study, and found them to be both pro-oil industry and pro-health. “All residents who were interviewed were thoughtful and well spoken; none were against the oil industry per se,” Sears wrote. “Indeed, some had welcomed facilities on their own land. They simply want good industrial neighbours that allow them to breathe clean air.” [Emphasis added]

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