There is an abandoned house in Alberta, Canada, where Alain Labrecque used to live. Tucked in the farming community of Peace River, it is a place brimming with personal history, rooted to his grandfather’s land where his parents and eight aunts and uncles grew up, and where Alain’s own children were born. Now, Alain’s property and the surrounding area are primarily home to large, black cylinders of oil.
The oil is from Alberta’s much-famed tar sands, a large area of land that contains clay, bitumen, and a good deal of sand. Inside the tanks, heavy crude from the sands is heated, until it becomes viscous enough to transport. Many of those tanks currently vent freely into the atmosphere.
As the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world and the key ingredient of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and with production value that is expected to nearly triple by 2018, the Canadian tar sands have become an unseen symbol in America. For some, that symbol represents jobs, energy security, and economic prosperity. For others, it’s pollution, addiction to fossil fuels, and a threat to a livable climate. What generally is not conveyed, however, is an image of the families who live there, and who have been there long before the tar sands boom.
Though Alain once thought having the tanks on his property would be a blessing, he now describes them as a curse. After experiencing an unusual kind of sickness — fainting, weight loss, gray skin, strange growths — that he believes was caused by the tanks’ unregulated emissions, Alain and his family were eventually forced to move to British Columbia. They have pegged Baytex Energy, the owner of the tanks, as their enemy. Baytex has produced studies claiming innocence, but has also offered to buy the Labrecques’ land in exchange for their silence. So, taking their doctor’s own advice, the family decided to move, and fight the battle for their home from afar.
The doctor’s words to them? “He said, ‘You are just a small, little bolt in this huge robot, and you don’t matter. Move.’”
Prosperity in Paradise
As a family with a rich history of working for and benefiting from the oil industry, never in their wildest dreams did Karla and Alain think they would be the ones fighting this fight.
“You’ve gotta understand, I’ve worked for oil sands, I was a contractor,” Alain said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “I’ve never been negative toward oil. Never thought this would happen.”
The Labrecques’ large and long family history begins in 1929, when 18-year-old Joseph Labrecque homesteaded a piece of land near Peace River, Alberta, Canada — an oil-rich area that Baytex Energy Corp. now calls the “Reno Field.” Joseph cleared the land, and eventually settled down with a wife and nine children, seven boys and two girls.
As Joseph’s children grew up, five of his sons stayed in the area, taking up the land that surrounded their father’s. Even now, the Labrecques still largely make up the population of the one-by-five mile Reno Field.
Oil came into the picture in 2004. Representatives for Koch Exploration, a company owned by notorious billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, approached one of Joseph’s sons, Mike, asking for permission to drill. Mike was in favor and Koch Exploration drilled the land, eventually selling it to Prosper Petroleum in 2008. Prosper continued to drill wells until the land was finally purchased by Baytex in February 2011.
But for the Labrecques, ownership was not really an issue — in fact, there were no issues. Their environment was clean, their kids were healthy. Drilling added value to their land and cash to their pockets.
One of Mike’s nephews, Alain, was happy with the royalty payments he received from the oil. They paired nicely with the fact that 2010 was his best farming year yet. “It was just no thought of negative thing, period,” Alain testified under oath before the Alberta Energy Regulator . “Things were just starting to click.”
Just as things were becoming comfortable for Alain in December of 2010, he began experiencing some minor health issues. He also owns a logging business, and was busy trying to get the trucks ready for the season. As he was working on the engines, he began to get headaches — nothing serious, he said, but big enough where he had to pop an Advil every few hours. As time went on, he gained a new ailment: eye-twitching, or as he says, a “quick little pull on the eyes.” The headaches persisted. And he was not the only one with problems.
“Why is the little girl always falling?” Alain recalled thinking of his then-two-year-old daughter. He assumed she was just clumsy. But then, in March 2011, his wife, Karla, fell down the stairs. She began to notice that she could make herself faint if she turned her head too far to the left. Around that time, Alain noticed his house smelled like gas — the same smell they would smell the evenings before outside, when Baytex would vent its simmering tanks of oil sands. He checked the furnace, the carbon monoxide monitor. Nothing.
The symptoms progressed. Every night, Karla said she would fall asleep to popping ears. She had sinus congestion, hot and cold flashes. She began to feel as if her arms were hollow. She developed “massive” headaches, like migraines, but different. “I get migraines; this is not like a migraine,” she said. “This is like somebody’s taking a two-by-four to your head.”
Their then three-year-old son, they said, started developing dark grey circles under his eyes, and struggled with constipation. Despite being put on laxatives, he would sometimes go a week without a bowel movement. He once went 12 days. As time passed, Alain developed a growth on his head, which was removed by a doctor.
Alain’s uncle Mike was initially annoyed at the complaining. “I guess in a way I thought I had a good job here, and I didn’t want anybody rocking the boat,” he said.
But then the symptoms started for him too. By winter of 2011, he was sweating through three pillows a night. His skin turned gray and he lost 45 pounds. His wife Leona, who lived in the city during the week for work, said Mike would go into “comatose sleeps.” His voice became hoarse, and his speech became slurred. He began to believe he had cancer.
Though Mike’s symptoms persisted, he continued to work. Since he lived right in the middle of the Reno Field, he was hired by Baytex to clear snow at the sites, and use his tractor to pull tanker trucks into and out of the sites whenever wet conditions or snow inhibited truck movements. In April 2012, he was called to go help another worker at a Baytex site. Feeling dizzy, Mike stopped at his office, and told his supervisor he was feeling too lightheaded to go the site, too dizzy to operate his tractor.
“I said the way I feel right now — I said, I — I can’t do it,” he recalled. “So I said, is there anything that you can do?”
A few phone calls later, Mike was fired.
Pinpointing the Problem
When Mike did work for Baytex, it was basically the same as it was when he worked for Koch and Prosper, the two companies that owned the site before. Except, he says, there was one change that he found peculiar. When Koch and Prosper operated the tanks, it would take nearly three hours to load the bitumen from the tanks into the tanker trucks. Now, with Baytex, it took only 30 to 45 minutes.
“[Mike] and the other landowners believe that Baytex increased the temperature of the tanks and possibly added chemical thinners to allow the heavy oil to be loaded faster,” a statement on the landowners’ “Stop Baytex” website reads.
Baytex spokesperson and director of stakeholder relations Andrew Loosely, however, told ThinkProgress that not only had the company not increased the temperature of the tanks, but that Baytex’s process for liquefying the tar sands is essentially the same as when Prosper Petroleum’s. “It’s untrue,” Loosely said. “Our process is no different than what was going down before. In fact, we’ve lowered the temperature that Prosper was operating their tanks at.”
When Prosper had owned the tanks, it operated them at 194 degrees, whereas Baytex operates them at 176, Loosely said. Prosper had also used an open venting system, he said, and no method of capturing its emissions. In fact, Baytex has more so-called “vapor recovery systems” that capture the emissions and turn them into usable fuel than Prosper did, he said.
Baytex’s process is called Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand, or CHOPS. It is a radically different production process than conventional oil drilling, and is designed for the hard-to-extract tar sands — a thick mixture of heavy oil, sand, and water. To extract the most tar sands, the CHOPS process uses wider drill holes. The well is then “perforated,” meaning there are holes up and down the sides of the underground pipe. Those holes are able to suck in everything — the sand, the oil, and the water.
Then, the mixture is put into tanks and heated. The heating process separates the sand and the water, and the oil is ready to be transported to a pipeline or rail facility. The process, according to the Alberta government, should produce anywhere from 94 to 314 barrels of oil every day, per well, “in almost all cases.” Considering Baytex has 23 well pads in the Reno Field, that could mean more than 300,000 gallons of oil produced from the field every day. In September 2013, Baytex produced 53,550 gallons per day.
But inevitably, CHOPS doesn’t just produce tar sands. It also winds up creating a good deal of chemical- and bitumen-related waste product, according to the Alberta government. There is so much waste, in fact, that the government estimates waste management accounts for 15 to 35 percent of operating costs for the CHOPS process. The waste is considered “non-hazardous,” however, so while it can be noxious and smelly, it presents “no known health hazards” to the community.
After identifying the smell in their home as the same smell from the CHOPS tanks, Karla and Alain in 2011 asked Baytex to take steps to remedy the emissions. Baytex responded by shutting down its drilling operations, and hiring a company called Chemistry Matters, Inc. to conduct an air quality study. Chemistry Matters’ founder and sole proprietor, Dr. Court Sandau, describes his company on his LinkedIn page as providing “data validation services for contentious or litigious matters — when you need it to be right.”
That air quality study found that no health-based limits on emissions were exceeded in the area surrounding the Labrecques’ home. The bitumen produced in the area is rich in sulfur, which likely contributed to the foul smells, but levels of sulfur in the air did not violate regulated standards for human health, the report said. Baytex resumed its operations.
The Labrecques take issue with Baytex’s study, and believe it failed to monitor air quality at night — the time when emissions were released and when odors were strongest.
“They produce air quality studies that say, ‘No, everything’s all OK,’ trying to prove that we’re lying to them,” Karla said. “They make you feel like you’re the troublemaker — a ‘Why don’t you just shut your mouth’ type of thing.”
Indeed, Baytex has attempted to keep the Labrecques quiet. Before moving to British Columbia in 2011, after a year of complaining, the Labrecques entered into alternative dispute resolution with Baytex, where the company offered to buy their 160-acre farm for as much as it would have been worth before the environmental damage. No one else would have offered the Labrecques that much. But there was a catch.
According to the sale contract the Labrecques provided ThinkProgress, the sale of their land would have meant silence. No social media posts from them, their children, or their children’s children about Baytex. No more StopBaytex.ca, no more “Stop Baytex” group on Facebook — those would be turned over to the company. No communicating with government representatives about issues concerning Baytex. No talking to the media.
Karla and Alain did not sign the contract, and wound up finding a buyer for the farmland portion of their property. They still own the land on which their home sits. The same cannot be said for Alain’s next door neighbor and brother, who took the deal partly because his wife was pregnant when the emissions were at their most unbearable. He is unauthorized to speak to the media.
At a January hearing on Baytex’s emissions, an environmental health expert hired by the Alberta government testified that many Alberta doctors are afraid to speak out against the oil sands, and afraid to connect it to health issues. A family doctor for the Albertans who live downstream from the tar sands, Dr. John O’Connor, agrees. He was threatened with having his license taken away for talking about cancer rates near the oil sands in 2006.
“My experience … strongly suggests to me that government does not want to know [and] is not interested in knowing what’s going on,” Dr. O’Connor told the Vancouver Sun.
Solutions and Regulations
In the eyes of the Canadian government, Baytex is operating within the rule-book. CHOPS operators are not obligated by current regulations to install odor-reduction or vapor recovery systems.
But from their new home, the Labrecques are calling for regulatory reform. And after 3 years of fighting, the Alberta government is finally starting to listen. The Alberta Energy Regulator last month held a 10-day hearing from Jan. 21 – Jan. 31 on the Labrecques situation, and emissions associated with heavy oil operations in the Peace River area. At that hearing, Baytex promised to install vapor recovery systems on all its tanks in the Peace River area.
Voluntarily-placed vapor recovery units won’t fix the gap in Alberta’s oilpatch rules, according to lawyer Keith Wilson, who is representing the Labrecques. Specifically, Wilson told CTV news that the rules governing those vapor recovery systems — which can collect enough gas to be profitable for companies — are inadequate in that they do not address the production of odor.
“The regulations that we have in place now are designed for one of two things: Either for the traditional oil sand [tar sands] 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.”
Results from the hearing are expected in a few months. Until then, the Labrecques and other families that have been forced to move are suing Baytex for a temporary halt on production. The first hearing on the injunction is in March.
Karla and Alain once considered staying in their home and fighting Baytex from there, but ultimately made the decision to move for the sake of their children, and their own mental health.
“If we would have dwelled on it and tried to stay and continue farming and fight these issues, it just would have further destroyed us, ” Alain said. “Physically, mentally. It would have been suicidal that way, to continue. There was no future.”
To date, at least six families including children have made the same decision and abandoned their homes in Peace River, citing health concerns from heavy oil emissions from the Reno field.
The Labrecques try to maintain a normal life, and things are going well. Their daughter, now 5, is no longer clumsy. Their son, now 6, has the color back in his cheeks. Karla still retains a heightened sensitivity to strong smells, but otherwise feels healthy. Sometimes, she and Alain reminisce of their home back in Alberta, and whether they will one day be able to return.
“We’ve managed to keep our cool, but sometimes I just can’t fathom in this day and age that it had to come to this,” Alain said. “Here we are, you know, farming and other farm families are there, and a company moves in to extract the oil beneath you, and all of a sudden they have more rights than you do to be there. You can’t think about it too long.”