Edmontonians hear about runaway development in Ft McMurray almost every day. But some of the largest industrial expansions in North America are happening on our city’s doorstep, in an area dubbed the Industrial Heartland.
Located north and east of the city, small towns like Bon Accord and Redwater are about to welcome $16 billion in oilsands upgrading projects over the next decade. The province has also just completed a study proposing an $8 billion refinery—Canada’s largest—for Redwater.
Metro Edmonton is quickly becoming home to some of the most intensive petrochemical development on the continent, the kind of development other North American cities have rejected.
While the province and the municipalities forge ahead, the people who live in the Industrial Heartland are still asking questions about emissions, noise, groundwater and human health effects.
The Industrial Heartland is 330 square kms of mixed parkland dotted by rivers, lakes and small towns that have grown into Edmonton’s suburbs. Sturgeon County, bordering St Albert, forms the western and northern edge, including Morinville, Redwater, Gibbons and Bon Accord—towns that now serve as bedroom communities for Edmonton’s oilfield servicing boom. To the southeast, the Industrial Heartland is bounded by Strathcona County, encompassing several Sherwood Park petrochemical plants and oil refineries built during the first oil boom in the 1970s.
Fort Saskatchewan and the county of Lamont reach north and east, dotted with acreages and serviced by the city of Fort Saskatchewan, one of Alberta’s fastest-growing small cities, and home to Dow Chemical and other petrochemical ventures.
Residents of the Industrial Heartland are no strangers to development. The counties of Sturgeon, Lamont, Strathcona and the city of Fort Saskatchewan banded together in 1998 in order to solicit industrial development in their municipalities. Residents now live with pipelines, refineries, petrochemical plants, a fertilizer plant, one oilsands upgrader (slated for expansion) and a hydrogen plant.
The big stuff is yet to come. The thick sludge that oil companies stripmine in the Athabasca tar sands requires a complex refining process in order to become light, sweet crude, and the home of those refineries will be the Industrial Heartland.
At least five new projects are on tap. BA Energy has turned sod, while Northwest is awaiting approval. Residents have filed letters of concern about the Northwest project, but the company says it plans to receive approval by mid-2007. After Northwest, PetroCan and Synenco await approval. Canadian Natural Resources Ltd is looking at land in the Redwater area, and French giant Total has also been rumoured to be interested in new upgrading facilities.
Anne Brown, a stay-at-home mom on an acreage in Sturgeon County, has worked on behalf of residents since May of 2000.
“We are not saying no to industry. But a cumulative environmental impact assessment seems like basic homework—we are just saying do the homework and prove [to us] that we will be taken care of,” says Brown. But she says that municipal councillors have not listened to their constituents, who crowded a standing-room-only meeting last winter to oppose further industrial zoning in the County of Sturgeon.
Brown recently wrote to Capital Health’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr Gerald Preddy. In July, she asked Preddy to meet with her group to explain rising cancer rates among women in Sturgeon County, which have gone from 122 per 100 000 women to 138 in just six years.
Cancer rates are not the only item of concern. In a May 2006 letter to the Minister of the Environment, Brown pointed to high sulphur dioxide and other particulate matter—emissions that are above provincial guidelines. The high levels were found in the environmental impact assessment for the BA Energy oilsands upgrader, but the EUB approved the project anyway.
“When three families challenged their right to an EUB hearing in court with respect to the BA Energy application, their lawyer argued that the SO2 levels were twice the provincial guideline in the area of his clients’ homes, and the company’s legal council argued that they were only guidelines, not laws. There are no laws for SO2 in Alberta. This signifies to us, the residents of Alberta, that the emission guidelines are meaningless.”
It’s not just the oil industry, either. Tia Bartlett lives just across the road from the Agrium fertilizer plant. Agrium is the only plant that uses fluoride, and residents have commissioned studies showing elevated levels of fluoride in vegetation. At least one livestock death—a sheep—has been recorded as a result of fluorosis. Bartlett says she, her family, and her horses have all exhibited health effects. “I’ve also been treated for polyps in my nose, a symptom the doctor said he sees a lot in Ft McMurray. He’s not going to bother removing them until I move out of the area.”
Bartlett has been bought out by industry. She is moving her family and horses 20 km away.
There are 190 properties in the Industrial Heartland. Many landowners say they have been trying to get out for years, but no one is buying. Residents are now selling through a voluntary purchase plan, a fund set up by industry to buy out acreage owners. Twenty-five landowners have sold their property through the plan so far.
Tia Bartlett is concerned that the voluntary purchase plan will rid the area of landowners, thereby erasing the need for public hearings. Without residents that are deemed “directly affected”—a definition that Bartlett says is far too narrow—public hearings are no longer necessary.
“Public hearings are when the truth comes out,” says Bartlett. “They’re the only democratic process we have.”
Bartlett adds that a cumulative environmental impact assessment would prove that industrial development affects residents beyond the narrow definition of “directly affected,” which can be as little as within a 1 km radius of a proposed development.
Alberta Environment says much is being done to monitor the Industrial Heartland as massive new developments come onstream, but the department rejects residents’ call for a cumulative impact assessment, arguing that current programs are sufficient.
“When we do an impact assessment, we do a cumulative analysis of what is already out there, what is coming, and what is being planned for the future,” says Lisa Grotkowski, spokesperson for Alberta Environment.
In addition, the department says “air and water quality are being monitored with very strong programs, with a very good public communications component, making sure the public is aware of the status of their ambient air quality, and also providing programming where school children can learn about how industry mitigates the effects of air emissions.
“Alberta Environment participates in the Fort Air partnership and several ground and surface water monitoring and management programs,” adds Grotkowski.
The majority of funding for the Fort Air partnership comes from industry, as does the Beverly Channel groundwater monitoring program. Of the programs cited by Alberta Environment for the industrial heartland, only the surface water program, funded through the provincial Water for Life strategy, is not paid for by industry.
Residents are moving forward with letters of concern and other applications to intervene in new petrochemical developments in the Industrial Heartland, but they are dismayed with the representation they’ve received from their municipal and provincial representatives.
“We’re just regular people, and we go into a hearing up against five or six lawyers and teams of public relations professionals,” says Anne Brown. “But we just want some answers. How much development is enough? And what are the effects of what we already have?”
The Mayor of Sturgeon County and the spokesperson for the Medical Officer of Health at Capital Health did not return calls for this article.