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Study finds air-quality issues in community surrounded by oilsands

A plant near Fort McKay, Alta., on Sept. 16, 2014.

Ian Willms/The Globe and Mail

A major study of air quality in a northern Alberta indigenous community surrounded by oilsands development suggests there is a chance ongoing exposure to airborne chemicals may be damaging people's health.

The study by Alberta Health and the province's energy regulator has found more than a dozen chemicals push past environmental and odour thresholds at least some of the time in Fort McKay First Nation.

"The report did find the air in Fort McKay does, at times, contain substances at levels above what is recommended for human health," said Karen Grimsrud, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

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"What the report does not answer is how these air quality events might affect human health."

The study, which took 18 months to complete, looked into 172 air quality complaints from Fort McKay, about 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, between 2010-2014. Fort McKay is surrounded by seven major oilsands mines within 30 kilometres.

It found few examples of dangerous, short-term releases. But it found a suite of potentially dangerous hydrocarbons that are in the air at levels that pose concerns about long-term and cumulative effects.

"It's the intermittent poor air quality, the cumulative effects we need to look at," said Grimsrud.

Using data from a variety of local, provincial and federal monitoring sources, the report found a total of 13 chemicals that breach odour and health-based thresholds.

They include toxins like hydrogen sulphide and carcinogens like benzene. Ozone and sulphur dioxide were "frequently" above long-term health thresholds.

"Yes, we are very concerned," said Jim Boucher, chief of the Fort McKay First Nation.

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"It's been a cause for concern for the people of this community since 1966. Now we have finally arrived at a process to resolve those concerns."

The report contains 17 recommendations, most addressing the need for better monitoring and more research to track the source of the chemicals.

Monique Dube, chief environmental scientist for the Alberta Energy Regulator, acknowledged her office has to do a better job of tracking what's going on in the community's airshed.

"We identified several technical gaps that we believe need to be fulfilled," she said. "We need to gain a better understanding of the emissions sources that are causing some changes in air quality."

That's good enough — for now, said Boucher.

"This exercise we are about to undertake will identify what the sources of odour are and the types of odours," he said. "Then we will determine thresholds and standards with respect to what is acceptable in this community.

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"And then we will ensure that these problems are dealt with."

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman promised the government would adopt all 17 recommendations. Although environmental monitoring and research is expensive, she said resources would be provided to get the studies around Fort McKay done.

"There's nothing more important than the health and safety of Albertans," she said. "This is something we are absolutely committed to and we will make sure that the resources required are aligned with where the need is."

Industry is on board with the need to understand the airborne emissions and how they may be affecting people in Fort McKay, said Terry Abel, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

"Our industry is 100 per cent committed to supporting all of the implementation associated with those recommendations. We are 100 per cent committed to protecting the health of our public and our good neighbours."

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