Richard Langer never wanted attention. If the 72-year-old had his way, he would have stayed quietly on his ranch forever. It's where he was born, where he has raised a family and made his living.
"I don't like being in the limelight or anything," he says, wearing coveralls and sitting in his kitchen, careful not to touch his elbows to the table. "I'm a private person."
But this ranch is not what it was in 1929, when Mr. Langer's father homesteaded it. An odour has rolled in, a heavy smell of tar that hangs low over the land some mornings, depending on wind patterns. Residents blame nearby oil operations, and some fear its effects.
The Langers say they had 11 stillborn calves this year, double the number they've ever lost before. Mr. Langer has found himself overcome by dizziness on occasion, confining the ranching patriarch to his bed on haying days. His doctors say his lungs are a patchwork of scar tissue, though he has never smoked.
His wife is begging him to leave. His grandchildren have already gone.
"The trouble is, when you get people getting excited, everyone says, 'Oh, it's just a bunch of hippies causing trouble,' eh?," he says. "I don't want to cause trouble. I'm old, I want peace and I'm going to move out of here."
The complaints have been brought to the province by Mr. Langer's son, Carmen, 47, an outspoken, tattooed former oil worker who runs the 840-hectare ranch. While his own grown kids have moved away, he's stayed to wage the battle.
"We're just getting lambasted in here," he says.
The province has responded that while there is indeed a smell, it's not toxic. Some chemicals are 40 times higher than normal, but they're still within the range considered safe. Yet Carmen's months-long fight has won some small victories, including a rollback in emissions this year. Still, Carmen has raised the temperature by bringing in Greenpeace, which never misses a chance to slam the oil sands.
"There's a certain type of hysteria that builds around these areas," says Darin Barter, a spokesman for the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), the province's oil regulator. "I'm not sure if that's what's happening here."
'It's a health issue. Period'
Lying just outside the small northern city of Peace River, Three Creeks consists of a dilapidated community hall, some two-lane roads and the farms that stretch across rolling hills that eventually dive into the lush Peace River Valley.
Among those who've joined Carmen Langer's cause are 56-year-old twin sisters Diane Plowman and Donna Dahm, who each own land a short drive away. A teacher and a nurse, the women are the region's activists-in-chief. Their many concerns include excess traffic on gravel roads, a proposed nuclear-power site, and now the air issue.
People accuse them of being tree-huggers. "You become the villain when in fact you're the victim," Ms. Plowman says.
But do they recognize themselves in that description? Ms. Dahm smiles: "I like trees."
Ms. Plowman's home, built with her husband, Bob, over the past 23 years, lies on an idyllic plot at the foot of a dead-end road. The head of a buck Bob killed hangs on the wall inside the A-frame home, which is stained the same colour as the couple's chocolate Labrador, Jake. They keep one horse in a small stable.
Their home also has a silver canister, provided by the government to take air samples. They scoff when the province calls it merely an odour.
"It's a health issue," Ms. Plowman says. "Who in their wildest dreams thought in the boonies of Alberta that you'd be fighting air-, land- and water-quality issues?
The activists cite a miscellany of odd phenomena: The area's willow trees are dying. A moose that was killed along the highway, they say, appeared "drunk" at the time - just as Mr. Langer's cows sometimes do, when the smell rolls in. Windex won't work on the windows. The ducks and frogs, they say, are gone.
The sisters keep binders of documents stemming from all their complaints, including those to the ERCB, Alberta Environment, Alberta Health, the local Northern Sunrise County and, of course, the oil industry, which pays the lion's share of municipal taxes here.
Tens of thousands of barrels of oil are produced by five main companies in Peace Country each day through in-situ (underground) bitumen extraction. The process requires more energy input than open-pit bitumen mining, but disturbs little ground. It's a process of which the local MLA, Frank Oberle, is proud.Report Typo/Error