Gaseous emissions up north

Residents blame Calgary-based oil company for illness

A group of families from Peace Country in northwestern Alberta is seeking an injunction against Calgary-based oil company Baytex. They claim more than two years of exposure to toxic emissions from Baytex operations near their homes made them sick and forced them to move away. They want Baytex to suspend its local operations until the source of the emissions is found and dealt with.

Energy companies first began extracting oil from a strip of land called the Reno field in 2004. Reno field is only 1.6 kilometres wide by eight kilometres long but contains 41 drill sites and 86 heated bitumen storage tanks. Keith Wilson is the lawyer representing four of the six families that have left the area. He says they had no problems living amongst the high concentration of oil operations until Baytex took over in 2011. Immediately after that residents allege there was a noticeable smell of solvents or tar in the air and they began suffering frequent headaches dizziness sore throats and muscle spasms. Wilson says he experienced the same symptoms when he toured the site.

The problem may be due to the method Baytex is using to move the oil. Like previous companies on the Reno field and many others in northern Alberta Baytex is using a technique called Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand — CHOPS — which requires oil to be heated in the ubiquitous storage tanks before shipment.

However Wilson and his clients believe Baytex is bringing the bitumen to much higher temperatures than previous companies and leaving tank hatches open to vent pressurized gas. This would create a toxic plume that may be making residents ill.

University of Calgary petrochemical engineering professor Ian Gates says this theory could be correct.

“It depends on how hot those tanks get. There is a chance that you could have aquathermolysis going on there” Gates says. Aquathermolysis is the chemical reactions that occur when steam hits heavy oil.

“You’ll convert some of the sulphur compounds into H2S” he explains.

H2S or hydrogen sulphide is one of the most toxic emissions produced in oil operations and is usually closely monitored by provincial regulators. Gates says he has never heard of CHOPS bringing bitumen to high enough temperatures to produce H2S but adds most heated tanks are sparsely distributed in remote locations so toxic byproducts could go unnoticed.

In response to residents’ concerns Baytex hired RWDI consulting engineers to conduct an air quality assessment. That assessment released September 18 says RWDI tests found nothing.

Wilson says that’s because RWDI only took samples from 27 of the 86 tanks and did so on clear days when as photographs from the assessment show the hatches were shut. He says his clients have always maintained the odour and their health is worst at night and when the sky is overcast. Gates also confirms the weather affects how emissions disperse through the atmosphere.

Andrew Loosley Baytex’s director of stakeholder relations says Baytex is open to conducting new air quality tests. Loosley also says that since 2011 Baytex has been working with residents in and around the Reno field to address their concerns in order to ensure they and his staff remain healthy.

“I got 50 employees that work at our facilities on a regular basis plus an additional 200 contract workers that work there… and so we want to make sure we’re operating in the most safe and environmentally responsible manner possible” he says.

Loosley says Baytex has suspended drilling new wells in the area and partially installed a pipeline to capture gas leaking from drill casings. Wilson argues those measures do nothing to stop the gas being vented from the open tank hatches. He wants Baytex to stop using the heating tanks until it installs a vapour capture system there or at least flares to burn off the vented solution gases.

In a final twist Baytex claims it would love to install flares on the tanks but is not legally able to unless residents withdraw formal complaints they made to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) about the Reno field air issues.

AER spokesperson Carrie Rosa says that’s true. Baytex does have proposals to mitigate emissions issues at its Reno field facilities but AER approval is delayed by objections residents registered with the regulatory body.

“You don’t need my clients’ permission to close the tanks” argues Wilson who wonders if Baytex is making excuses so it can continue to benefit from its unique operating method at the Reno field for as long as possible. After all Wilson says a recent presentation to Baytex investors claimed the Reno field was one of its most profitable ventures with a 200 per cent rate of return.

“I just think they don’t get it. They think it’s okay to do this” says Wilson. “Getting Baytex to take responsibility for its conduct — that’s the biggest challenge.”