Bitumen facility blamed for Peace Country health woes

A family is blaming emissions from a nearby heavy oil production site for chasing them from their Peace Country home of seven years in northwestern Alberta.

Alberta denies further drilling until emissions reduced or eliminated

A family is blaming emissions from a nearby heavy oil production site for chasing them from their Peace Country home of seven years in northwestern Alberta.

Thera Breau says the decision to move came down to the health of her young kids who started experiencing unexplained health problems.

Thera Breau moved her family from their Peace Country home when her children experienced unexplained health problems. (CBC)

"They had urinary incontinence with a strong smell of ammonia," said  Breau, who also noticed speech problems and skin rashes developed by her toddler.

Breau made the decision to move on the morning of Mar. 18 when she took her five-year-old son to catch the bus in front of her house.

"His eye was twitching so bad that he had a temper tantrum." Breau said.

"The air stank so I called the ERCB (Energy Resources Conservation Board), and decided I didn't want to live here anymore until I could be told that it was safe."

The Breaus left their rural bungalow, moving to a small rented home in the nearby community of McLennan.

Not the first to leave

Breau's family is not the first to pack up and leave the area. At least six other families have done the same.

There is no scientific evidence linking health symptoms to emissions from the CHOPS tanks. (CBC)

Mike Labrecque, 60, moved from his home southeast of Peace River last year as his health was deteriorating.

He dropped 40 pounds and was experiencing allergic-type reactions such as hives and difficulty beathing. He now lives in a cabin along a lake without power or water and has seen a noticable improvement in his health.

When he does venture back to his property, he needs an industrial-strength gas mask in order to breathe comfortably.

"It's very depressing, I know I will never be able to live here again," said Labrecque through a gas mask while standing in what was the kitchen of the house under construction on his abandoned property.

"My body has suffered way too much damage... my body is totally allergic to the air here."

As for the possible cause of the fleeing residents' difficulties, all point to a relatively new process of extracting bitumen from underground in the region called Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand, or CHOPS, where heavy oil  is pumped from the ground and stored in heated tanks which produce emissions that form an aerosol-type plume.

No scientific evidence linking emissions to symptoms

Though there is no scientific evidence linking fumes from the tanks to any of the symptoms experienced by area residents, many blame the emissions for their ailments which began, they say, when new wells were drilled by Baytex Energy in 2011.

Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes is halting drilling until emissions are reduced. (CBC)

While the ERCB regulates smaller industrial energy operations such as CHOPS, it monitors the air only for sour gas and sulphur dioxide.

Breau and the other families are convinced there are harmful substances in the emissions going unmonitored.

In March, Alberta's minister of energy made a trip to the Three Creeks region northwest of Peace River to assess the problem.

It was following that visit that the Alberta Government took the unusual step of turning down an application by Baytex Energy to increase the number of drill sites.

Minister Ken Hughes told CBC News the Mar. 22nd decision was "unprecedented."

"What I could detect was that there was something in the air that was different than the rest of Alberta," Hughes said. 

"This kind of development was experiencing different emissions, and different air quality problems."

Drilling company studying emissions

Further development by Baytex Energy won't be approved until the emissions are drastically reduced or eliminated entirely, he said.

Baytex Energy of Calgary declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an email exchange, Chief Operating Officer Marty Proctor said the company has undertaken "numerous operational enhancements"  to reduce emissions and improve communications with residents.

While the displaced residents are seeking compensation from the company, they say it's not just about the money. Residents  say they would move back to their homes immediately if they felt their health was no longer at risk.

Baytex Energy is now unertaking an extensive air emissions study, and said it will speak further to the allegations of harmful emissions when the study is complete. 


Kim Trynacity is a former provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton.