Bad air: Oilpatch odours return to northwestern Alberta despite fix attempts

A resurgence of sickening, gassy smells from Alberta's northwestern oilsands have residents increasingly impatient over a problem they thought had been solved.

A resurgence of sickening, gassy smells from Alberta’s northwestern oilsands have residents increasingly impatient over a problem they thought had been solved.

“You can smell the absolute presence of gas,” said Garrett Tomlinson, reeve of Northern Sunrise County near Peace River.

“It was to the point of making them sick — headaches, and all those things that we thought had been rectified.”

Two years ago, people in communities such as Three Creeks earned national headlines when they complained that constant tarry reeks from nearby oilsands plants using an unusual processing method were driving them from their land.

Residents complained of headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and said their livestock was similarly affected, with cattle spontaneously aborting calves.

The Alberta Energy Regulator investigated and released a report in March 2014 that called for stricter emissions controls. Air-monitoring equipment was installed and new regulations took effect last October.

But the familiar petrochemical miasmas returned shortly after.

“It has been an ongoing thing, but we noticed it as a significant issue since mid-December,” Tomlinson said. “That’s when I started getting regular phone calls and emails from residents saying, ‘This is an issue.”‘

Documents released by the county suggest complaints began increasing toward the end of November. During the last two weeks of that month, the county recorded seven odour events complete with health effects from joint pain to exhaustion.

“This is not acceptable,” said county administrator Peter Thomas in a Dec. 29 email to his staff.

“Laws have been changed and equipment is in place to determine when there are issues. Now, when we can confirm there is an issue, we have no one to take action?”

The problem, said Doug Dallyn of the Peace River Air Monitoring Program, is that monitoring stations don’t automatically alert industry and government when the air is bad — even though that’s well within their capabilities.

“I’m pushing the government to say, ‘You made the industry put these air stations in and now you won’t even recognize the ability these stations have?’

“Why are (regulators) not being told and why are (they) waiting until two days afterwards to start trying to look for a leak that isn’t there any more?”

Sunrise officials bemoan the lack of on-the-ground enforcement.

“There has to be an authority that can go do a site visit and be empowered to shut things down and issue a fine,” wrote Thomas.

The regulator said it is still developing regulations to deal specifically with the Peace River oilsands play. The agency had been scheduled to discuss them with the county on Thursday, but was forced to reschedule to digest the large number of public comments it had received.

“The (regulator) has received and continues to follow up on odour complaints in the Three Creeks area,” said spokeswoman Melanie Veriotes in an email.

“Our inspectors respond to all concerns and emergencies around the clock and, when requested, report back to the concerned Albertan on the findings.”

Operators in the area include Shell Canada, Baytex Energy (TSX:BTE.UN) and Murphy Oil. Dallyn said no one company has been linked to any of the emission events.

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