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In a landmark report to Alberta’s energy regulator, a panel of experts has concluded that odors from a controversial tar sands processing plant are linked to human health impacts.

The report, which was published yesterday, examined the emissions from Baytex Energy’s Peace River plant, which has been the subject of a number of health complaints from local residents over the last few years. The situation has been so bad that seven families have been forced to leave. 

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View of smoke plumes emitted from the Syncrude upgrader plant north of Fort McMurray, northern Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

The residents have complained that the plant—which essentially boils bitumen—has been making them sick, and they have been suffering symptoms such as severe headaches, dizziness, sinus problems, vomiting, muscle spasms and fatigue, amongst others.

Now the report by the Albertan Energy Regulator (AER) has called on the odors to be stopped. The report concludes: “odors caused by heavy oil operations in the Peace River area need to be eliminated to the extent possible as they have the potential to cause some of the health symptoms of area residents.”

The Panel also recommended “that further study be conducted to examine linkages between odors and emissions and health effects.”

Meanwhile the report gives the company four months to capture all the odors.

It has been welcomed by local landowners who have been experiencing health problems. “This validates what we have been saying for years—that the tank-top emissions are causing health problems,” said one such landowner Brian Labrecque. “It’s been a very long road and we are relieved the AER is showing some teeth and holding industry accountable.”

He is backed up by environmental groups. Mike Hudema of Greenpeace said the panel’s report “reaffirms what the local residents have known for years—that the emissions were part of the reasons the families were getting sick.”

However Baytex’s spokesman Andrew Loosley belligerently replied that studies undertaken by the company “tell us the air is safe,” although the company is moving to install technology that captures the odors.

Environmental groups are also now calling for technologies to ensure that odors are captured to be applied across the wider tar sands region. Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute told the Globe and Mail, “The same technological solution can be used to prevent odors, health risks and greenhouse-gas emissions throughout the province.”

Meanwhile legal action against the plant trying to force a temporary injunction also continues. A judgement is expected sometime this month.

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