Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

An ill wind in oil country

An ill wind in oil country

A heavy smell of tar hangs over this hamlet, and when people and animals got sick, some residents began to make a stink of their own
Josh Wingrove

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Jul. 24, 2010

Richard Langer never wanted attention. If the 72-year-old had his way, he would have stayed quietly on his ranch forever. It's where he was born, where he has raised a family and made his living.

“I don't like being in the limelight or anything,” he says, wearing coveralls and sitting in his kitchen, careful not to touch his elbows to the table. “I'm a private person.”

But this ranch is not what it was in 1929, when Mr. Langer's father homesteaded it. An odour has rolled in, a heavy smell of tar that hangs low over the land some mornings, depending on wind patterns. Residents blame nearby oil operations, and some fear its effects.

The Langers say they had 11 stillborn calves this year, double the number they've ever lost before. Mr. Langer has found himself overcome by dizziness on occasion, confining the ranching patriarch to his bed on haying days. His doctors say his lungs are a patchwork of scar tissue, though he has never smoked.

His wife is begging him to leave. His grandchildren have already gone.

“The trouble is, when you get people getting excited, everyone says, ‘Oh, it's just a bunch of hippies causing trouble,' eh?,” he says. “I don't want to cause trouble. I'm old, I want peace and I'm going to move out of here.”

The complaints have been brought to the province by Mr. Langer's son, Carmen, 47, an outspoken, tattooed former oil worker who runs the 840-hectare ranch. While his own grown kids have moved away, he's stayed to wage the battle.

“We're just getting lambasted in here,” he says.

The province has responded that while there is indeed a smell, it's not toxic. Some chemicals are 40 times higher than normal, but they're still within the range considered safe. Yet Carmen's months-long fight has won some small victories, including a rollback in emissions this year. Still, Carmen has raised the temperature by bringing in Greenpeace, which never misses a chance to slam the oil sands.

“There's a certain type of hysteria that builds around these areas,” says Darin Barter, a spokesman for the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), the province's oil regulator. “I'm not sure if that's what's happening here.”

‘It's a health issue. Period'

Lying just outside the small northern city of Peace River, Three Creeks consists of a dilapidated community hall, some two-lane roads and the farms that stretch across rolling hills that eventually dive into the lush Peace River Valley.

Among those who've joined Carmen Langer's cause are 56-year-old twin sisters Diane Plowman and Donna Dahm, who each own land a short drive away. A teacher and a nurse, the women are the region's activists-in-chief. Their many concerns include excess traffic on gravel roads, a proposed nuclear-power site, and now the air issue.

People accuse them of being tree-huggers. “You become the villain when in fact you're the victim,” Ms. Plowman says.

But do they recognize themselves in that description? Ms. Dahm smiles: “I like trees.”

Ms. Plowman's home, built with her husband, Bob, over the past 23 years, lies on an idyllic plot at the foot of a dead-end road. The head of a buck Bob killed hangs on the wall inside the A-frame home, which is stained the same colour as the couple's chocolate Labrador, Jake. They keep one horse in a small stable.

Their home also has a silver canister, provided by the government to take air samples. They scoff when the province calls it merely an odour.

“It's a health issue,” Ms. Plowman says. “Who in their wildest dreams thought in the boonies of Alberta that you'd be fighting air-, land- and water-quality issues?

The activists cite a miscellany of odd phenomena: The area's willow trees are dying. A moose that was killed along the highway, they say, appeared “drunk” at the time – just as Mr. Langer's cows sometimes do, when the smell rolls in. Windex won't work on the windows. The ducks and frogs, they say, are gone.

The sisters keep binders of documents stemming from all their complaints, including those to the ERCB, Alberta Environment, Alberta Health, the local Northern Sunrise County and, of course, the oil industry, which pays the lion's share of municipal taxes here.

Tens of thousands of barrels of oil are produced by five main companies in Peace Country each day through in-situ (underground) bitumen extraction. The process requires more energy input than open-pit bitumen mining, but disturbs little ground. It's a process of which the local MLA, Frank Oberle, is proud.

“There's a tremendous amount of development in my constituency,” says Mr. Oberle, a top Alberta cabinet minister. “This is the only [odour] situation I'm aware of.”

An Alberta Environment report this month said the average total volatile organic compound (hydrocarbons) levels at sites in Three Creeks were as high as 521 parts per billion, more than 40 times the levels further away from production plants. But the odour was actually a mix of several smells coming from industry collectively. And it was far below the thresholds where it would be considered unsafe, the report said.

Still, after the report, the government changed its requirements for the disposal of gas byproducts of extraction. “Really, I think it's a contemporary issue we're seeing,” said Randall Barrett, the environmental manager for Alberta Environment's northern office, “where what's worked in the past has to be changed going into the future.”

All five companies have co-operated, Mr. Oberle stresses. Gas discharge has been reduced to 2 per cent from 56 per cent. Oil companies were also required to inspect 600 local sites and test emissions levels; results are due next week. Ms. Dahm asks why it wasn't done years ago.

Now, though the ERCB's Mr. Barter insists that “there's no health impact directly from the odour,” the residents wait to see if their problems will persist.

Down the road from Mr. Langer is Doug Dallyn, 55, whose wife, Merna, 52, has fallen ill over the past few years and now cannot work. Her symptoms include joint stiffness, a symptom also found in Mr. Langer's cattle.

Mr. Dallyn's granddaughter was diagnosed with leukemia at 2. Her puppy also got sick and had to be put down.

Yet the Langers and Dallyns are blood relatives – Merna Dallyn and Carmen Langer are siblings. What if their health issues are more genetic than environmental? “I do know that my mother and I have had very similar experiences in health,” Mrs. Dallyn says. “It does make you wonder.”

Other effects also have alternative explanations. The province's Sustainable Resource Development ministry, which overlooks forestry, says the willows have “willow leaf miner,” a pest that eats leaves and tends to come with drought, which has plagued the region.

And the highways are hardly filled with drunken wildlife. “Nobody's coming in here to wind up a big story about a delirious moose,” RCMP Corporal Mark Potts says.

The Langers say they have been experiencing effects for years. The ERCB says it received its first complaint only on March 31. Since then, the board has received 63 complaints from 13 individuals.

Nevertheless, Mr. Langer has succeeded in forcing the issue onto the provincial agenda at a time when the ruling Progressive Conservatives are moving to cement their rural voter base as they are challenged by the upstart Wildrose Alliance Party. Staff from several ministries now attend regular meetings and plan further tests in the fall.

Unlikely allies

In his efforts to raise interest, one of Mr. Langer's calls was to the Edmonton office of Greenpeace. The person who picked up the phone was Melina Laboucan-Massimo, 29, and his story piqued her interest – she had driven by his ranch often, as a member of the Lubicon native band that sits on non-treaty land about 50 kilometres east of there.

“It just happened I took his call,” she says, “and I'm from the area. He was feeling like his complaints were falling on deaf ears.”

She knew the feeling. The Lubicon have complained about development in the area since she was a child, when the first all-weather road went in, and they began reporting a series of miscarriages. “We really sympathize [with] where the farmers are coming from. These are the kinds of concerns we've had for years,” says Bernard Ominayak, 60, who has been a Lubicon chief for 30 years.

“Hey, I wasn't a fan of Greenpeace,” Carmen Langer says. “Guys are making fun of me, my neighbours. All these Greenpeace hanging around eating moose meat.”

Still, the alliance has had an effect. Venting has decreased; 600 sites are being tested; Shell, a nearby operator, will require new emission controls on asphalt tanks next year.

As long as his father remains sick, though, that's not enough for Carmen. Will officials keep listening?

“You know, I believe Carmen believes everything he's reporting. He's very emphatic, very emotional,” says Mr. Oberle, the MLA. “If Carmen overstates his case every once in a while, that's understandable. He's affected.”

And, right or wrong, he won't give in. “If I wanted to sell, I could be gone tomorrow,” Carmen says. “I want to fight this to the bitter end.”


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