Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Delay refinery until health effects are studied, Alberta regulator urged

Delay refinery until health effects are studied, Alberta regulator urged

Josh Wingrove
Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.
Globe and Mail
Jun. 11, 2010

The latest in a string of applications to build a massive oil refinery in an Alberta farming community – one coping with a rising cancer rate and soaring number of hospitalizations – should be put off until an inquiry can be called to examine the health impact of rapid industrial development, an energy hearing was told on Friday.

In the last day of a two-week hearing on the proposed project, lawyers for a citizens group criticized not only the application but the regulator presiding over the hearing, accusing the Energy Resources Conservation Board of shutting people out of the process.

The proposed bitumen upgrader on the outskirts of Fort Saskatchewan, an Edmonton suburb and area where five upgraders have already been approved, would be an undue health risk, lawyers said.

“The pace of development is simply too fast, creating unacceptable risk to the local landowners,” lawyer Bill McElhanney said, adding “development must be slowed until the proper planning, policy and regulatory safeguards are in place.”

The proposed location is poor because of industrial projects nearby and its position on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River, the main water source for the Edmonton region, lawyers said.

“When does a region or area reach its capacity?” asked Keith Wilson, another lawyer for residents.

But the proposed bitumen upgrader would have “no unacceptable environmental, health and socioeconomic effects,” countered Martin Ignasiak, a lawyer for Total E&P Canada Ltd., the energy company making the application. He called it “a robust, comprehensive and safe project” that would have “significant long-term benefits for local communities.”

In heated closing arguments before the three-member, quasi-judicial ERCB panel, both sides sought to discredit the other’s experts.

A health expert for Total was derided as unqualified because he has only a bachelor's degree and has never published a peer-reviewed study, while Mr. Ignasiak said witnesses called by the citizens group overstepped their expertise.

“I had a vision of somebody starting to throw rocks from a glass house,” Mr. Wilson shot back.

The upgrader, which would refine bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands, has been proposed for an area dubbed Alberta's “industrial heartland.” Factories, including one upgrader that is already operating, dot the horizon.

Environmental groups call the area “cancer alley.”

Rates of some hematopoietic blood cancers, including leukemia, in the area’s men are now double the levels of 15 years ago, bringing them above the provincial average, government figures indicate. (Medical officials have cautioned against drawing conclusions from the figures, citing a small sample size.)

The area also has the most hospital visits of any Central Alberta municipality. The illness rate among elderly people is also highest in Central Alberta, while local children younger than one year old visited the hospital twice as frequently as the regional average.

“It’s very troubling to me to see these rates of morbidity in Fort Saskatchewan, without any explanation as to why that’s happening,” Stuart Batterman, a University of Michigan public health expert called to testify by residents, said in an interview this week.

He said Total’s application has "omissions and biases" to minimize the effects of a new upgrader. During testimony this week, some experts called Total's figures and proposal “completely unacceptable,” “incomplete” and “ineffectual, unreliable and sometimes downright incompetent.”

The ERCB, an arm’s-length energy regulator that environmental groups say is a close friend of industry, has approved five previous upgrader applications in the area over the past decade or so.

The ERCB denied several residents standing at the hearings, a decision Mr. Wilson questioned Friday.

“It builds suspicion. It erodes confidence in the process, in your whole organization,” Mr. Wilson said.

Residents who were given standing said they hope new development will be put off until health effects are explained, or put in a county with fewer industrial projects.

The ERCB has 90 days to render a decision.


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