Evicted families wait for oilsands court decision

Evicted families wait for oilsands court decision
Wells and heated bitumen tanks on a CHOPS bitumen production site owned by Shell in the Three Creeks area around Peace River.Photo: Jean-Philippe Marquis.

Residents forced from their homes in the Peace River area must wait weeks for the verdict of the court case in which they are demanding Baytex Energy stop its oilsands operations and reduce its fume emissions.

At the trial last Wednesday, the judge said he will study the evidence and arguments presented by both parties and should render a decision within five or six weeks.

Together with land-rights lawyer Keith Wilson, cousins Brian and Alain Labrecque and a group of families demanded an injunction to the Baytex bitumen extraction in the Reno area last November, which they allege has caused health problems to their families and forced them to flee their homes.

Residents blame bitumen emissions for their dizziness, loss of balance, nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, memory loss, exhaustion and others symptoms.

Wilson argued before the judge that bitumen fumes are responsible for the health issues, since the Labrecques live in an area that has a high concentration of wells with no other industries around.

He stressed that the Labrecques are not opposed to the oil industry, at first welcoming the extracting companies, until 2011 when they started to feel the alleged impacts of the emissions and were forced to leave the area.

The legal counsel for Baytex responded that the families have started their lives elsewhere and have no intention to return to their land even if the emissions are stopped, which undermines the need for an injunction and emergency response.

Alain Labrecque said he finds the argument insulting. He said his property is not only a piece of land with a market value, but a home that has a familial and historic value.

“It is my farm; I grew up there. I still have a house. I bought the land and worked hard for my boy and my daughter to give them the chance to farm if they want, and that’s important to me. My children might want to go back if these issues are dealt with properly.”

Baytex lawyers said there is no “objective evidence” that the fumes are responsible for the harm. They added that a halt to their operation would mean a loss in royalties, job cuts and that, overall, the balance of inconvenience does not favour the injunction.

Wilson responded that the Reno field consists of only 3 per cent of total Baytex revenue.

Land-rights lawyer Keith Wilson debriefs Alain and Brian Labrecque outside the court house after the trial against Baytex last Wednesday.

Photo: Jean-Philippe Marquis

Land-rights lawyer Keith Wilson debriefs Alain and Brian Labrecque outside the court house after the trial against Baytex last Wednesday.

Emissions escaping from tanks

Bitumen in the Peace River area lies in reservoirs 600 metres underground and is either extracted with pump-jacks by injecting steam to liquify the bitumen or by cold heavy oil production with sand (CHOPS).

Through CHOPS, thick bitumen is extracted by the same principle of a grain elevator using an auger, and once at the surface must be heated to 70 to 80 degrees in 1,000-barrel capacity tanks to allow the sand to sink down. The bitumen is then transferred by truck to the main plant for further refinement.

Bitumen tanks equipped with top recovery systems capture most of the emissions produced during the heating process. Not every tank purchased by Baytex in 2011 was equipped with this system.

In a prepared statement about the court case, Baytex’s director of stakeholder relations Andrew Loosley said they have undergone operational improvement, but want to do more.

“We are committed to taking steps in reducing emissions in all our areas of operation. We continue to press forward with our plans to address the concern of the residents,” he said. “However, area landowners’ objections, roadblocks and continued objections to our regulatory applications have prevented us from making the exact improvement that these landowners have been asking for.”

Regulations are the problem: Wilson

Baytex lawyers said the company operates within the law, but Wilson said present regulations are the problem. He said emission restrictions were initially designed for the massive Syncrude tanks in Fort McMurray.

“These (Peace River area) tanks just fall under the threshold, but when you throw 86 of them around someone’s house, the cumulative effects of that emission is huge,” he said. “The regulatory net doesn’t catch what Baytex is doing; they are falling into those gaps and they are making huge profits doing it.”

Wilson said Baytex can make the decision to stop the emissions right now, but has chosen to put profits over people.

“Their own numbers speak to it. They claim on their own website that they make over a 220 per cent return on the Reno field, where the competitors are making a 100 per cent return. Those are incredible numbers, but the only way that can be happening is if Baytex has found a way to significantly cut costs, which is by not putting in pollution control equipment.”

Wilson said the court case would set a precedent for similar cases in the future.

“This court case will send the message that if oil companies are not respectful of their neighbours and cause the neighbours harm, there’s going to be serious legal consequences, and right now it’s not clear that it’s the law in Alberta,” he said.

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