Albertans are Abandoning Their Homes Due to Toxic Air

By Michael Toledano
Vice: February 20, 2014

The pages of Karla and Alain Labrecque’s photo albums reek of bitumen. They’re so soaked with toxic fumes that just looking at their photos makes them ill. The Labrecque’s abandoned their farm near Peace River, Alberta, after emissions from a nearby tar sands operation caused each family member to experience health problems. They were the first of seven families to abandon the area, but others living near the Reno and Three Creeks oil fields are left behind and continue to suffer. The vapours that permeated the Labrecque’s home still cling to all of their old possessions, “right down to pictures or paper, our books, our filing cabinets,” Alain Labrecque said.

After hundreds of complaints from residents and a lawsuit against an oil company, in late January, the industry-funded Alberta Energy Regulator held a public inquiry into local emissions. It took place at the appropriately named Belle Petroleum Centre, and was punctuated by tears and emotional outbursts. Carmen Langer, a rancher living in the thick of Three Creeks’ oil fumes, explained that according to community air monitors “one day of the inquiry we were four times over the [normal] background level of the gas. Everybody went to that inquiry stoned out of their minds and angry.”

After years of toxic exposure, Peace River residents had plenty of anger to vent.

Residents blame bitumen emissions for their seizures and shakes, eye twitches, muscle pain and spasms, numbness, crippling headaches, dizziness, nausea, loss of balance, short and long-term memory loss, slurred speech, slowed thought, loss of hearing, shallow breathing, blackouts, swelling, sinus irritation, metallic taste, no sense of smell, nosebleeds, blood in urine, rectal bleedeing, chronic heart burn, insomnia, inability to stay awake, intoxication, sedation, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, weeping, weight loss, sweating profusely, hot and cold flashes, and bruising. The exact long-term impacts of exposure are unknown, though detected compounds like benzene and toluene may lead to MS, dementia, Parkinson’s, or cancer.

Worse still, those who sought help have only found corruption. Industry and government mislead them, labs skewed air test results, and doctors refused to diagnose them. The Alberta Energy Regulator oversees Alberta’s oil patch and is “100 percent funded by industry”—it essentially allows Peace River companies to regulate themselves. And living in a town where almost everybody works for the oil industry, those speaking out have become outsiders; they are the bearers of an unpopular truth.

“It is just our opinion that we have come up to a wall of systemic, entrenched corruption—people dedicated to misleading us and stifling the truth,” Vivienne Laliberte, a Reno resident forced to leave her home, testified to the AER. “We have not met one person in government, in industry, and the regulator who has demonstrated a functional conscience.”

The Labrecque’s

Unlike the sprawling open-pit mines and poisonous lakes that have made Fort McMurray’s tar sands infamous, many of Peace River’s operations use wells to bring bitumen up to the surface of the land. It is heated it in tall black canisters that line the horizon, then pumped into trucks or pipelines. This method is called CHOPS—or Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand. It is the only method currently used in Reno.

Despite claims from Shell and Baytex that their CHOPS operations meet or surpass all applicable regulations, few regulations actually exist for this method. Local oil producers are legally permitted to vent toxic gas into the environment in any non-explosive amount, including known carcinogens like benzene, toluene, and poly aromatic hydrocarbons. Baytex leaves the hatches open on many of their tanks, despite years of requests from the Labrecque’s to close them.

“It is rather appalling to know that ‘within regulations’ means that they can poison my family,” Karla Labrecque wrote in an open letter to Baytex. The company took over oil wells half a kilometre from her home in 2011. Within a year, according to the ERCB, recorded emissions jumped by about 6000 percent.

Andrew Loosley, Baytex’s spokesperson, said that even prior to Baytex’s takeover of the oil field “all gasses associated with that production in the Reno operations [were] vented into the atmosphere,” as is permitted by “all applicable regulatory guidelines.” He attributed the increase in gasses to the fact that the previous company, unlike Baytex, “was not recording their numbers.”

But around the time of this documented increase, the Labrecque’s began to get sick. They initially struggled to identify the source of their illnesses, checking for boiler defects and carbon monoxide in their home. The tar-like smell that hung in the air was an obvious but unsuspected culprit—the family had welcomed their new industrial neighbours without suspicion. “I had this naïve thought like everyone else that the oil industry was strictly regulated, and a nightmare like this taking place was just not possible,” Alain said.

After a few months of exposure, Alain suffered from eye-twitches, back pain, headaches, and muscle spasms. He “would just soak the bed from these toxins at night,” had poor balance and foggy memory, and found it increasingly difficult to operate farm equipment. Karla recalled experiencing “a hollow feeling in the arms, hot and cold flashes, [and a] massive left-side headache,” clarifying that “this is not like a migraine. This is like somebody’s taking a 2-by-4 to your head.” At the height of her illness, she discovered that “if I turned my head too far to the left I could actually make myself pass out.”

Their daughter, then two years old, was unable to keep balance. “She would fall off things—you know, one stair up, she’d fall off it. She’d fall off the couch, she’d fall off the chair when she was just sitting, eating supper,” Karla Labrecque explained.

When they spent time away from their home, the Labrecque’s felt better. They moved away and learned that half-hour visits to the farm would cause each family member’s symptoms to reappear. Karla has become particularly sensitive and finds herself bedridden for a day or two whenever she encounters chlorine, windshield wiper fluid, vehicle exhaust, or her old, petro-chemical-soaked possessions.

Alain’s uncle, Mike Labrecque, needs a gas mask to make it through the town. “As soon as I’m exposed, I lose—I lose everything. I lose my hearing, I lose my balance, my speech. I don’t stutter as a rule; I don’t. I lose my ability to talk, I lose my ability almost to comprehend,” he told the AER.

Before abandoning his home, he lived close to Karla and Alain in a forested corner he described as “a park.” He enjoyed his work as a contractor for Baytex, pushing trucks through mud and snow with a tractor. As Baytex’s emissions made him increasingly ill, he struggled to stay awake while operating the vehicle. One day he told Baytex that he didn’t think he could work safely, so they fired him.

“Everything has to be done in a safe manner so we had no choice,” Baytex’s spokesperson Andrew Loosley said.

Alberta’s health services.

Mike mentioned the oil wells near his home to a doctor. And after retreating a little bit they told him that he didn’t need a doctor, he needed a lawyer instead.

Karla Labrecque sought medical attention and a sinus specialist named Dr. Mel Delacruz became convinced that she was being exposed to an airborne pollutant. When Karla mentioned the oil wells just south of her home, Dr. Delacruz “just told me to move. He said, you are just a small, little bolt in this huge robot and you don’t matter. Move.”

Karla recalled that Delacruz “wasn’t too keen on speaking out” and that he referenced Dr. John O’Connor—a physician who was “dragged through the courts” after linking rare cancers to tar sands mining. When Karla insisted on a blood test to check for petroleum by-products in her body, Delacruz refused. “I’m not even allowed to call for that stuff on a blood test,” she was told. Dr. Delacruz could not be reached for comment.

A few months later, Karla tried again. She demanded a blood toxicity test from the Peace River hospital, alleging that a doctor there also refused to take her blood. When she refused to leave, the doctor called an unnamed government representative to seek permission for the test—a process Karla thought was unusual. Permission was granted, but as the Vancouver Observer reported, the hospital ran a type of blood test that is useless for detecting petro-chemical compounds.

“The doctors won’t help you with your symptoms,” Three Creeks resident Carmen Langer said. “It’s the Alberta way. I mean, when you’re working for the Alberta government are you going to recognize this issue until you’re forced to?”

The Langer Ranch.

Carmen Langer says he’s seen dozens of tanker trucks roll over in his community of Three Creeks, a 20-minute drive northeast of Peace River . He’s convinced that truckers are leaving the oil field “drunker than skunks” after getting high on fumes while filling up their vehicles. He knows this experience well, he drove trucks for the oil industry and sometimes felt impaired behind the wheel.

“It’s just like drugs or alcohol in your body. And then when you come off it there are the same effects as an alcoholic or a junkie has,” Langer said. So when testifying before the AER late January, he understandably had little patience to offer.

“I’m not feeling well because we got severely gassed Sunday morning at our place,” he told the regulators. “And again this morning.”

Though the AER’s inquiry focused on Baytex’s Reno oil field, Carmen told the regulators that “there’s only one company in that area—I have five here with constant emissions.” Three Creek’s oil fields host the operations of Shell, Penn West, Murphy, Husky, and Tervita.

“The bitumen smell is so strong in your house and in your pillow, in your blankets, in your blinds, in your drywall, your mattress—everything is contaminated. I live in a contaminated environment because of this… I lay on my couch; it smells like bitumen. I go to open my blinds; they smell like bitumen,” he testified.

For more than a decade prior to the Labrecque’s becoming ill, Langer has had disputes with local industry. An ex-oil worker, he is extremely critical of how industry operates today.

“As a young guy for me it was a blessing because the jobs were unlimited here … good oil sands jobs,” Langer said. Working for Shell, he maintained facilities, fitted pipes, and served as a safety contractor. Shell trained him to watch for hydrocarbon odours on the job and “to get out of the area” if odours became too strong. “Twenty years ago we couldn’t work in these kinds of conditions, but now I have to sleep in them?” he asked.

Langer’s loud, dissenting voice has brought him some unwanted attention. He claims that he’s been threatened by industry and he is currently the subject of an RCMP investigation. He also worries that he has become detested by some in his community—especially those who aren’t affected.

Different homes get different doses of pollution, he explained, arguing that wind patterns and altitude play a major role in determining who gets sick. His ranch is at a low elevation and traps pollutants until heavy winds disperse them because “emissions are heavier than air,” he said. “As they’re leaving the tanks they’re warm, they go up a little bit, then they cool and they fall into a lower spot… that’s why you could have a neighbour up on a hill a mile away, they would hardly get any of it.”

Langer believes that this uneven distribution of pollutants explains why some residents have a hard time believing those who feel ill. “They think come on, the government wouldn’t do this to you. That’s what the majority of the town thought before this inquiry,” he said.
In early 2012, the Labrecque’s received a confusing letter from Alberta Health Services. It told them that “chemicals associated with unrefined petroleum products were detected in air samples” but that they posed “no immediate or long-term risk to health or safety” based on Alberta’s ambient air quality guidelines. The letter also advised the Labrecque’s to “limit your exposure by closing windows and doors when odours are detected.”

Another of Alberta Health’s suggestions played out like a sick joke: “If you or anyone in your family is concerned about their health, please discuss these concerns with your physician at your earliest opportunity,” the letter said.

Mike had lost a lot of weight from vomiting and diarrhea. He sweated profusely at night, testifying that: “If I lied down… I could watch my chest and I could literally see the water coming out and form little rivers.” His breath was shallow, his voice was hoarse, he had trouble going to sleep and getting up. His speech suffered and he became convinced that he was terminally ill. He thought, “maybe I have cancer or something. ‘Cause I’d look in the mirror and it was scary… I could actually see my bone sockets.”

But despite naysayers, Langer’s activism has helped to make a political issue out of Peace River. When Premier Alison Redford visited the town she met with Langer personally. He asked her to “quit selling this stuff until it’s fixed,” and she promised swift action. Now he’s cynical of the whole affair. He said: “As soon as there’s a ribbon cutting in our town, the rotten sons of bitches run to the ribbon cutting where their name’s prominent and it’s good news, but they couldn’t come and face the people here.” He pointed out that as residents of Peace River poured out their hearts at the AER inquiry, Alison Redford was out of the country, promoting the oil sands at the World Economic Forum. “Why isn’t she here listening to the impacts?” Langer asked the AER.

“I have no choice to go anywhere. We’ve lost our total livelihood, we have no income,” he said. Having formerly won awards for their cattle, the Langers “had to get rid of our herd of cattle of eighty years. It was just so gassy. We couldn’t work anymore, we couldn’t get up in the morning to work anymore, and we couldn’t keep our cattle on their feet.” His vet told him to take his cattle and leave, but Langer pushed the government to test his cows for hydrocarbon exposure. When government scientists came to his farm, they tested the cows for venereal disease instead. Langer even believes that they “falsified” their final report. “They never did test for the fat,” he said, adding “[that’s] the only place you’re going to find the hydrocarbons.”

Langer also voiced concern over a growing Three Creek’s dumpsite of oil sands waste and a practice called “landfarming” that his family fell victim to seventeen years ago.

Landfarming, he explained, is a practice promoted by government and industry, where farmers are encouraged to do something rather illogical—to spread waste from oil wells across their land. It began with conventional crude wells in Southern Alberta, whose drillings contained phosphates and nitrites that worked well as fertilizers. But since that time the nature of oil extraction has changed and bitumen drillings are much more toxic, so after seventeen years and millions of dollars in remediation costs, little will grow on Langer’s farm.

(read the rest of the article on Vice)


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