Armed Alberta sheriffs are guarding a public hearing into the proposed construction of a controversial bitumen upgrader near Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., CBC News has learned.

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Chairs are filled at an Energy Resources Conservation Board hearing in Fort Saskatchewan. ((CBC))

A coalition of environmentalists, farmers and residents packed the Lakeview Inn and Suites on Tuesday on the first day of the province's Energy Resources Conservation Board hearing into French oil firm Total S.A.'s plan to build an upgrader northeast of Edmonton.

The development is proposed for an area that already has industrial development, including plans for other upgraders.

A decision on whether Total can build the upgrader is expected before the end of the summer.

The guards were sent by Alberta's solicitor general's office to keep the peace, said Eilish Lemieux, spokesperson for the Office of the Solicitor General and Public Security.

"They're there to prevent things from happening," she told CBC News.

"I don't think they were expecting anything [to happen]. I think they're just there to make sure everyone gets their say."

Bitumen, a tar-like substance mined in the oilsands, is upgraded into synthetic crude oil, which can then be piped to refineries for processing into gasoline, lubricants or other petroleum products.

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Alberta sheriffs are seen Tuesday at the ERCB hearing in Fort Saskatchewan for a proposed bitumen upgrader. ((CBC))

Some residents in the area of the proposed upgrader are fighting the project.

They told CBC News that they believe there are already too many upgraders planned for the area and pollution will get worse.

Having guards present at the hearing is overkill, they said.

"I mean, we're just moms, there's farmers, there's grandpas in there.… What are they concerned about?" said Anne Brown, a member of Citizens for Responsible Development, whose house is near the site of the proposed upgrader.

Wayne Groot, a potato farmer who lives about 10 kilometres from the proposed Total site, said having guards at the hearing is ridiculous.

"We're innocent people. We're not out to do any harm to anyone. We're just trying to do what we think is right for our society," Groot said.

Groot said Total is trying to put a positive spin on the project's environmental downside.

"They're very confident in their project. They're basically telling us to 'don't worry, be happy' and I think our experts are going to poke all kinds of holes in their arguments," Groot said.

"You know the dollar rules in this province and especially Petro dollars, and we just think that the environment and people directly affected by this, who have no part in [the operations], should become a much larger part of the equation."

Gary Houston, a vice-president of Total's Canadian subsidiary, said the upgrader's emissions will be site specific and will fall well within what's allowed, except for two pollutants that already come into the area from the nearby urban centres of Edmonton and Fort Saskatchewan.

"They're also very infrequent and very minor.… It's primarily related to nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide."

Houston said the upgrader would use all the latest environmental technologies to minimize the impact on the surrounding areas.

Edmonton Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald said the bigger issue at the moment is having armed personnel in a public hearing.

"They're acting in a very heavy-handed manner and they don't want citizens to freely express their opinions on whether or not they want this upgrader in Fort Saskatchewan," MacDonald said.

The hearing is scheduled to last two weeks.