Sask. Ministry of Economy launches probe into strong 'crude oil-like' odour in Unity

The Government of Saskatchewan is investigating the cause of a strong odour in the town of Unity, Sask., which made many people sick earlier this month.

Residents say the smell made them sick in early January, still no answers

The town of Unity, Sask., about 170 km northwest of Saskatoon, is known for its involvement in the oil industry. (Google Street View)

The Government of Saskatchewan is investigating the cause of a strong odour in the town of Unity, which made many people sick earlier this month. 

Some residents took to the town's Facebook page to share their own grief over the issue. A few said they experienced nausea and migraines on Jan. 2 due to the smell. 

"Many people got sick in the town of Unity, including my wife," wrote Morice Miller.

"I had a friend tell me they got a headache instantly and their eyes burned. That cannot be allowed to happen."

The town of about 2,500 people, 170 km northwest of Saskatoon, is known for its involvement in the oil industry. 

Unity resident Brooke Ceslak said she worked in that industry and is still an advocate and supporter. She said it smelled like oil.

"I got a headache before bed, the smell was gone soon after, and I woke up fine," she said.

"I do believe better safety measures should be put into effect for the future, if possible. This is an oil town, so although it shouldn't happen, people shouldn't be surprised by it. If they don't like it, they could move anywhere else in the world."

Malfunctioning pump blamed

The Tervita Unity Waste Processing Facility, about two kilometres southeast of the town, handles wastes from the oil and gas industry. It released a statement on Jan. 3, attributing the odour to a malfunctioning pump at the plant which has since been fixed. The company said it was not hazardous or dangerous.   

Tervita declined to speak to CBC News but said it is working with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Economy on its investigation.

"We have no additional information to provide at this time," a spokesperson wrote.

Carey Baker, director of economic development in Unity, said he used an air-sampling canister provided from the Ministry of Environment to take an air sample.

"It was a crude oil-like smell," said Baker. "That's how I would describe it."

Consultants to help review data

The province did not respond publicly for 10 days following complaints.

The issue was initially reported to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment, but because the Ministry of the Economy licenses the plant, it initiated an investigation. A statement from the Ministry was put out on Jan. 12.

It said field workers from Lloydminster inspected the facility using radar cameras and hydrogen sulphide monitors to evaluate H2S emissions levels. No emissions were identified.

The Ministry contracted consulting firm Intrinsik Corp. on Jan. 8 to help its engineers review data on the waste delivered to Tervita. Intrinsik Corp will be providing advice on the investigation methods, testing protocols and interpretation of findings.

Samples collected at the facility were sent to Ottawa for analysis by the Environment and Climate Change Canada.

According to the province, the investigation will continue for the next several weeks and once complete, a full report will be released. The report will include an action plan.

"It would be my hope, and I think everyone's hope, that information would come from the investigation that may provide some suggestions as to how to ensure similar incidents don't occur in the future," said Baker.