Maureen Chichak lives near the Scotford upgrader in Fort Saskatchewan worries about how it has affected her health.
As Wayne Groot describes his concerns about the proposed upgraders that could one day surround his potato farm northeast of Edmonton, his eight-year-old son Luis runs into the kitchen and points out the window. Two moose are running across their lawn, and Groot pauses and smiles before picking up the conversation again. The proximity to nature is one of the many things Groot cherishes about farm life.
However, he may soon have to leave the area and his business. He’s worried about pollution from the proposed developments known as “Upgrader Alley,” a 300-square-kilometre area spanning four different municipalities northeast of Edmonton. By 2022, the industrial area could eventually include as many as nine upgraders, the plants that transform bitumen from the oilsands into synthetic crude.
Upgrader Alley covers a unique microclimate with unusually rich soil, which is why the Groots chose to move there when Edmonton expanded to encompass the family’s first farm. There are few other areas that can support his potato farm, Groot says, but staying might not be an option. Groot doesn’t trust the provincial regulatory system to keep his family or his farm safe, so he’s fighting to keep his land by opposing the proposed Petro-Canada Fort Hills Sturgeon upgrader.
“If Petro-Can gets the go-ahead,” Groot says, “I don’t think we’ll be living here very much longer. We don’t want to [move], because it compromises what we believe in, but we can’t live next door to an upgrader.”
Groot joined with fellow residents to form Citizens for Responsible Development (CRD), a grassroots group of farmers and residents working for “responsible development that is socially and ecologically sustainable,” says fellow member Barb Collier, also a third-generation farmer. At a June 19 press conference announcing the group’s opposition to the Sturgeon upgrader, she repeated the Pembina Institute’s call for a pause in development until the environmental consequences are fully understood.
The Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) hearing for the application began on Monday at the Fort Saskatchewan Lakewood Inns and Suites, but CRD doesn’t expect to present its concerns until June 26 or 27.
Maureen Chichak, also a CRD member, is worried about her health. She lives near the Shell upgrader in the Fort Saskatchewan area of Strathcona Country. Unlike Groot, she’s anxious to sell her land and leave the area.
During an accidental chemical release from Shell’s Scotford plant (the one operational upgrader in the area), she says she felt tightness in her chest and her eyes watered. She knows a handful of local people who have died of cancer and is very concerned about her health and the reliability of the air monitoring and notification system in her area.
She’s referring to the Northeast Region Community Awareness and Emergency Response (NR CAER) line, a volunteer organization including representatives from industry and municipalities that informs residents of chemical releases and other activities of concern to the public at industrial plants in the area. Aside from dues collected from the county councils represented on the organization’s board, NR CAER receives no government funding, says project co-ordinator Brenda Gheran. It was created five years ago and covers 700 square kilometres encompassing about 70,000 homes and businesses.
When a plant or upgrader leaks potentially dangerous chemicals residents are called and told to “shelter in place” — in other words, to remain in their homes and seal off windows, doors and any other spaces where air could be drawn in.
Sturgeon county resident Anne Brown argues that by offloading emergency-notification duties to volunteer groups, the provincial government is abdicating its responsibility to protect residents — and things are only going to get worse if more upgraders appear in the area. Brown lives on the southern border of Alberta’s industrial heartland and is also a CRD member. In her area, the volunteer group monitoring air quality is called the Fort Air Partnership. She was shocked when this group reported that the levels of benzene, a chemical that has been linked to cancer, was double that recommended by the province’s air-quality guidelines. To make matters worse, it took 10 days for the group to respond to her requests for more information, she says.
“Why is this important function being left to volunteers?” she asks. “Reliable and timely information is critical to families living in this industrialized area…. Until better monitoring of the air…. is in place, no further development should go forward.”
Chichak agrees. At the CRD press conference, her voice was thin and nervous as she described one afternoon of worry during a chemical release from Shell’s Scotford upgrader.
On September 7, 2006, the Shell upgrader near Fort Saskatchewan accidentally released sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Her husband Dennis was home at the time and he detected something around 10:30 a.m., she says, but didn’t receive a call to go indoors until 2:30 p.m. During that time she called the plant site several times and even left her job to check on her husband after she couldn’t reach him by phone.
“Keep in mind that this is just one day,” she says. “There have been several days that have gone like this.”
Shell spokesperson Randy Provencal says the company’s strategy for informing residents about chemical leaks has gotten better since the 2006 incident. Although Shell uses the NR CAER system for contacts, it employs a separate company to make its calls. On that day, says Provencal, the company Shell hired had training issues and “human error” resulted in some people not getting a call until much later in the day. Shell now uses a different company and tests the system frequently, with better results, he says.
Gheran, the project co-ordinator for the NR CAER line, says the current callout and message system is much better than the previous one, which required residents to call individual plants for information.
Problems remain, however. If residents don’t sign up, they don’t receive notification. Member organizations canvass the area, but with so many new people moving into the area, some people could be slipping though the cracks, Gheran says.
Peter Symons, spokesperson for Petro-Canada, says residents don’t need to worry, because their upgrader, if approved, will include “next generation technology.” Also, the company does not plan to do on-site storage of sulfer left over from the process of converting the bitumen into synthetic crude.
Consultants Consult On Consultants
Groot isn’t just worried about his land and the safety of his family; he’s getting increasingly skeptical of the provincial projects approval process. For instance, consultants who were paid and directed by industry completed the report on the environmental consequences to the area. “They hire their consultants,” he says, “and then come up with what we see as biased information.”
Groot says that although CRD received funding from Petro-Canada to hire a lawyer and experts to testify at the ERCB hearing, it wasn’t enough to fully examine Petro-Canada’s claims that nearby homes and businesses are safe. The independent engineer hired by CRD quit early on, he says, because the group couldn’t offer enough funding for a full assessment, and confidentiality agreements with Petro-Canada also made the task difficult.
ERCB spokesperson Darin Barter says the board reviews all technology, even if it’s patented. He says people who come to the board to oppose projects often feel that their concerns are not heard because the project is approved, but that’s not the case. The ERCB consistently grants conditional approvals based on what residents of the area bring forward, he says, pointing to the lengthy preparation process companies go through (in this case, two years of public consultations) before reaching the board as proof of the careful consideration that goes into each approval.
However, Pembina Institute senior policy analyst Simon Dyer says the credibility of the overall process is further called into question by the government’s practice of contracting out the review of the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) to consultants who also work for industry.
EIAs are reports that tell Alberta Environment how a given development will change the area, and includes assessments of pollution levels, resource use and noise. Industry has always paid for and directed consultant work on these initial reports. Prior to the recent spike in industrial proposals, Alberta Environment’s experts would run checks on the accuracy of this information.
Since January 2007, reviews of these consultant reports have been contracted out to other consultants, says Environmental Assessment Team Leader Chris Powter. Alberta Environment contracts out the review to a consultant and directs the work, while industry foots the bill.
Contracting out EIA reviews began as a pilot project. Half of the reviews were done by Alberta Environment and half were contracting out. Now, consultants do almost all the EIA reviews, including the one for the proposed Petro-Canada upgrader.
The practice raises questions about the neutrality of consultants who also do many projects for industry, Dyer says, asking how unbiased a company or individual can be when they count on the companies they are reporting on for future employment.
Powter says there are mechanisms in place to avoid conflicts of interest, and especially to prevent cases where individuals end up reviewing their own work. He stresses that all regulatory decisions are still made by Alberta Environment. “We felt that it would be better,” he says, “to dedicate our staff resources to processing the application rather than focusing on the EIA work.”
That doesn’t sit well with Dyer, who says it’s no wonder the Alberta public has to rely on anonymous tipsters to inform them of problems like the dead ducks in the tailings ponds. “We don’t have enough environmental managers,” he says. “The underlying theme here is how under-resourced our environmental department has become.”