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Lawyer Keith Wilson, right, is seen in this file photo. Wilson represents several rural landowners who have health concerns linked to odours from heavy-oil sites.

In one of the first reports to link oil-sands production to human health effects, a panel reporting to Alberta's energy regulator says odours from a heavy oil site in the northwestern part of the province have the potential to cause health issues.

Human health is a concern often cited by opponents of rapid oil-sands development. But while other Alberta government entities have examined long-standing cancer concerns in the small First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan north of Fort McMurray, no study in that area has found a conclusive link to nearby oil-sands sites and human health. Last week, for instance, Alberta's chief medical officer of health said cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan are similar to those in the rest of the province.

Monday's panel report, which makes recommendations to the Alberta Energy Regulator, follows panel hearings in January on heavy-oil health concerns from residents of a small farming community south of Peace River. For more than two years, people living near the Baytex Energy Corp. bitumen site have reported symptoms such as headaches and pains, a lack of co-ordination and spasms. According to lawyer Keith Wilson, who represents several rural landowners, seven families have been forced from their homes.

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This report doesn't require immediate action from the company but local landowner Brian Labrecque said the report is a reassuring step in the right direction. "They've provided us with confirmation this is a very serious issue."

The panel said energy regulations are not up to snuff when it comes to managing emissions and odours in the region, but notes the regulatory gap should be addressed by soon-to-be implemented changes. The report points out bitumen production in the area – which is separate from Alberta's main oil-sands region near Fort McMurray – is uniquely high in rotten-egg smelling sulphur and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a concern due to potential carcinogenic properties. However, the panel makes the fine distinction between the potential health symptoms caused by odours, and the effects of toxic chemicals – saying there's no sign chemicals in emissions cause health problems for residents.

The panel also recommended that technology be put in place within four months to capture all gases. Baytex spokesman Andrew Loosley said the company is already doing or has committed to doing much of what the panel has recommended, but might have difficulty meeting that timeline. He added that studies the company has done "tell us the air is safe."

Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, said the report points out rules and monitoring have not kept pace with development, a consistent criticism of the oil sands. "These recommendations could ensure that flaring and venting is addressed properly, but just in this one small area of Alberta," he said. "The same technological solution can be used to prevent odours, health risks and greenhouse-gas emissions throughout the province."

Monday's report had little to say regarding a startling submission by Margaret Sears, who was commissioned by the panel to examine health effects. In her January report, the Ottawa-based specialist in toxicology and public health said Alberta doctors are "afraid to diagnose health conditions linked to the oil and gas industry." Dr. Sears said physicians point to the experience of John O'Connor, a doctor who went public with oil-related human health concerns in Fort Chipewyan a decade ago and later faced criticism over his claims. But the panel report concluded "there was limited information to support this claim."

In an interview, Dr. Sears said she reached her conclusion by speaking to a small sample of physicians and public health officials across Alberta, as well as area landowners seeking treatment. Dr. Sears's concerns about Alberta physicians received a brief mention in a weekend New York Times opinion piece on the oil sands.

The recommendations will now go to the energy regulator, who will provide an action plan in about two weeks. Landowners are also awaiting a Court of Queen's Bench decision on an injunction request to temporarily halt the operation of the bitumen storage tanks owned by Baytex. That ruling is also expected some time in April.

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