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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Hearings to start on Peace River oilsands odours

PEACE RIVER, Alta. - Hearings are scheduled to begin this week on odours blamed on oilsands operations that have driven northern Alberta families off their land and at least one of the affected farmers hopes it will all wind up with tougher rules against bad smells.

"The best result possible is that they make some regulations to get companies to capture their vapours," said Alain Labrecque, who's had to leave the farm his father pioneered over pungent smells that he says are destroying the health of his wife and children.

The hearings, scheduled to begin in Peace River on Tuesday, were called last fall by Alberta's energy regulator after repeated complaints from families in the tiny communities of Three Creeks and Reno.

In an affidavit filed with the regulator, Labrecque complained of powerful, gassy smells and symptoms including severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion, muscle spasms, popping ears, memory loss, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, eye twitching and fatigue.

All those symptoms began in 2011, after Baytex Energy purchased 46 wells in the area.

Baytex uses an unusual method of heating bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract the oil. While there are other operators in Three Creeks, Baytex is the only one in Reno.

Previously released studies commissioned by the regulator strongly suggested that Baytex's operations were the source of the odours.

One found that the bitumen produced in the area is rich in sulphur, a common source of bad smells. Another showed the amount of gas vented from a large area that includes Peace River has roughly doubled since 2010.

Another cast doubt on the quality of data from Baytex-commissioned reports measuring air contaminant levels.

New studies have reached similar conclusions.

"Venting is the likely issue," said a study from one consultant, who added that previous studies on the issue probably underestimated odour impacts by a factor of two.

Another report found that while contaminants in the air have remained below levels required to damage health, odours themselves can cause many of the symptoms the families complain of.

"Studies of the health impacts of odours have revealed a number of different symptoms that can be attributed to odour alone, fully distinct from toxicological effects," said Donald Davies of Intrinsik Environmental Sciences.

Taken together, the findings reveal a gap in Alberta's oilpatch rules, said lawyer Keith Wilson, who is representing the Labrecques.

Those rules govern emissions of toxic gases or gases that can be collected in enough quantity to be profitable. But they don't directly address the production of odours.

"The regulations that we have in place now are designed for one of two things — either for the traditional oilsand operations or the old conventional oil and gas," said Wilson. "This type of production, where they're pulling it out of the ground cold and heating it on the surface in open tanks, that is an approach that the regulations were never written for."

Baytex spokesman Andrew Loosley said the company welcomes the hearings, which will run for eight days.

He said the company has taken steps to try and address odour problems. No new wells have been drilled for two years and a pipeline is being installed to help carry off fumes.

Baytex hopes the hearings will clarify what's expected of industry operators, Loosley said.

"We like to have clear line-of-sight with everything that we do. We believe that's important so everybody understands what the expectations are.

"We feel that it's important to have a safe environment for our workers as well as the residents in the area, so as far as we're concerned, the government will set the regulations and we're going to abide by them."

The regulator has said it will release its findings by the end of March.

-- by Bob Weber in Edmonton

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