PEACE RIVER, Alta. — Richard and Audrey Langer gave up their fight with nearby energy companies this spring and moved off the farm.
After years of complaining about the odours from nearby oil operations, the couple moved 75 kilo-metres west where they said the air didn’t smell so foul.
Langer’s father homesteaded the farm in 1929.
“I had no choice. We had to move,” said Richard, who blames their headaches, dizziness and lung problems on the smells and chemicals he said roll in with the wind from nearby energy operations.
Another hit landed this spring when Shell Canada gained regulatory approval for two new processing facilities.
“We’ve given up hope. Two years ago they said it would be better. There is such a great expansion. They can’t seal all the leaks,” said Richard, who worries his family has been branded troublemakers because of their opposition to the heavy oil facilities.
The problems began when one of the largest heavy oil fields in the province was discovered just east of their Three Creeks area farm. Unlike other oil processes, heavy oil is extracted using a giant auger and put into tanks. Once in the tanks, the bitumen is heated to 70 to 80 C to allow it to be trucked or piped to nearby processing facilities.
It’s that heating process that Carmen Langer, Richard and Audrey’s son, said is the problem. Some of the gases and chemicals escape during the heating process and drop to the ground during cold winter nights.
They roll through the valley and seep into the house, clinging to the furniture, carpets and bedding, they say.
“Midnight to 8 a.m. is the worst. It’s like you’re standing in a paving crew,” said Langer, who moves out of the house on the days that the odours move in.
About an hour south at Reno, Alain Labrecque is back at the farm harvesting timothy hay, but last spring the family sold eight of its nine quarters and moved to Smithers, B.C., to get away from the smell.
“We’re at ground zero,” said Labrec-que, who estimates there are 125 wells within a 10 km radius of the house.
Labrecque’s trouble began in 2008 when the first wells were drilled south of Nampa.
“The bush around the house holds the smells like a broom. There’s no way it’s going to get better,” said Labrecque, whose family walked away from their house and all its contents in 2010.
Wedding photos, clothes, toys, furniture and children’s artwork are exactly where they were when the Labrecques left, he said.
“I’ve just got to let go,” said Lab-recque, who has seeded his first crop in northern British Columbia. “We’re not complainers. We’re farmers, not acreage owners,” said Labrecque, whose grandfather homesteaded in the area.
Some of his relatives in the area have also left.
“I tried to do my best here to stay. You can’t dwell on this forever. If Alberta wants it, they can have it.”
While the Langer family has sold their cattle and some of their land, Carman said he is not yet prepared to leave the farm. Instead, he said his mission has become to report every infraction the energy companies make and hassle them into becoming better neighbours.
“I’m not against the oil industry, we all use oil. I want them to do it responsibly,” said Langer, who once worked in the oil industry.
Every night, or early in the morning, he said he makes the rounds through the maze of roads connecting the oil storage tanks, noting any flares or venting of gases. When he returns home, he phones in his findings to the province’s Alberta Energy Regulator, which is legally bound to investigate any concerns because of the Three Creeks Protocol, a local agreement. The regulator in turn sends the operator to check all problems.
Langer wants the provincial government to ensure the vapour collection systems on the tanks are working.
“Shell’s vapour collection system works well about 75 percent of the time,” said Langer, who saves most of his vitriol for Baytex Energy, which he believes is the worst offender.
“Before we started doing our work, they were blowing it up the atmosphere,” said Langer, who works with a group of neighbours to raise awareness of the problems.
Marty Proctor, chief operating officer with Baytex, said the company has improved its collection of gas during the heating process in the Three Creeks and Reno areas.
“No components have exceeded the Alberta objective,” Proctor said from the Denver head office.
The company just completed an air quality study in the Reno area, where the Labrecques used to live, with three companies doing air sampling.
“None of the readings have exceeded heat based guidelines in Alberta,” said Proctor. “I’m satisfied we’re not harming the community.”
Proctor said not all community members oppose the development or complain about the smells.
“There are some residents expressing concern. Others are generally indifferent or supportive of us.”
Maciej Ilowiecki, who lives beside the Three Creeks facilities, blames the government for not setting strict regulations for how industry can work.
“Regulation is the key. You have to have a stick.”