Leaders vow to tackle Fort McKay air quality, odour complaints

A new chapter in long-standing concerns over air quality on the Fort McKay First Nation, which is surrounded by oilsands operations in northern Alberta, has opened, said local and provincial government leaders on Wednesday.

Community's trust will be gained through demonstrated action, says chief of First Nation

This Sept. 19, 2011 aerial photo shows an oilsands mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Fort McKay First Nation Chief Jim Boucher and Health Minister Sarah Hoffman presented a united front Wednesday at the release of a new report that outlines 17 recommendations for improving air quality in the Fort McKay region. 

Local, provincial and industry leaders said the report signifies the opening of a new chapter in the on-going concerns over air quality on the Fort McKay First Nation, which is surrounded by oilsands operations.

"The release of this report is a key first step in responding to Fort McKay's long-standing concerns about air quality and odours," Hoffman said.

Boucher said air quality concerns and odour incidents related to industry have occurred since the 1960s. He said the new report marks the start of co-operation between the First Nation, the provincial government, and industry.

The report was prepared by the Alberta Energy Regulator and Alberta Health, in partnership with the community and industry. It looked at recurring complaints from Fort McKay residents about air quality and odours in the region.

​Long-standing concerns for community of 600

Approximately 600 people live on the First Nation and an adjoining hamlet. Fort McKay is roughly 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Leo Gabriel Desjarlais, a hunter and trapper in Fort McKay, struggles to describe what it smells like when fumes from the oil sand operations blow into the community.

"Sometimes it smells like horse shit," he said. "Sometimes it smells like burnt plastic."

Whenever the air smells like that he shuts the windows and stays inside.

"I won't go outside because you can feel it in your nostrils," he said. "It's really strong."
Leo Gabriel Desjarlais chops wood in his backyard in Fort McKay. Desjarlais says he rarely goes outside when the smell from the oilsands plants waft into the community. (David Thurton/CBC)

Desjarlais worries about the impact of the fumes on the health of the community's most vulnerable.

"I try not to think about it. The only thing that worries me is how this affects my grandkids and the kids around here."

Between January 2010 and December 2014, the Alberta Energy Regulator received 172 complaints from Fort McKay residents, of which 165 were related to odours.

There have been numerous efforts to better monitor and address the situation, ranging from citizen-led air sampling and joint federal-provincial environmental monitoring to a provincial monitoring and emissions-limit plan.

The report released Wednesday recommends that improvements be made in industrial and ambient air quality monitoring. It calls for an assessment of long-term and cumulative health effects of emissions.

It also recommends that a better understanding be developed of the link between industry emissions and air quality and odours in Fort McKay. It says improvements should be made to response and communications protocols for odour complaints.

Trust needs to be won, chief says

Boucher cautioned, however, that change would not come overnight.

"The trust of the community will be gained through demonstrated action," he said.

In 2012, the Fort McKay First Nation pulled out of the Joint Oilsands Monitoring program, the showpiece federal-provincial effort to monitor environmental change in the oilsands.

David Schindler, a professor emeritus in biological sciences at the University of Alberta who has extensively studied environmental impacts of the oilsands, called the report "a step in the right direction."

"The last time I was on the ground up there about three years ago, we were about (five kilometres) from Fort McKay and about the equivalent from a couple of the big oilsands plants...We were all coughing and our eyes were running and we were looking at each other in disbelief."

That incident was likely an anomaly in the area's air quality, he said. But when oilsands operations experience what might be called an "upset," it can have serious consequences on air quality.

"The next step is to take some action in a timely manner to get rid of the problem," he said. "You have to see if people will act on the report."