Clearing the Air

Flying towards Fort McKay over the dense mass of trees, your eye can’t help but follow the curving Athabasca River and dart around complex oil sands operations before getting caught on something unexpected: homes.

About 800 members of Fort McKay First Nation and over 500 Fort McKay Métis members call this northeastern region of Alberta home, and have for almost 200 years.

For years, they’ve worried about how air emissions from oil sands operations and the odours they cause affect their health and the environment, and questioned the adequacy of air monitoring and whether Alberta’s regulations keep them safe.

“We are literally surrounded by enormous industrial facilities and significant land disturbance, and the community is frustrated that they still do not have answers about how cumulative effects are affecting them and their environment,” says Chief Jim Boucher of the Fort McKay First Nation.

Taking Action

In response to these concerns, the AER, Alberta Health, and Fort McKay First Nation joined forces to conduct a year-long study examining these complaints and released a report with 17 recommendations to improve air quality and air monitoring systems.

Fort McKay ariel view

A multistakeholder air quality and odours advisory committee now leads the implementation of the recommendations. The advisory committee is composed of representatives from Fort McKay First Nation, Fort McKay Métis, the AER, industry, and the federal and provincial governments.

“We realized that in order to improve these conditions, we all needed to come to the table to accurately diagnose the problem and develop enduring solutions together,” says Chris Severson-Baker, acting director of the AER’s Environmental Sciences Branch and advisory committee co-chair.

Oil Sands Operations Around the Fort McKay Community

Fort McKay Métis president Ron Quintal says that the work to date has been moving in the right direction. However, he expects operators and government to make every effort to improve air quality in the region.

“Industry and government need to go beyond the minimal requirements, especially when they operate right at our backyard,” says Quintal.

Four recommendations have been fully implemented and another nine are underway. Among the most notable recommendations that have been applied is a new air monitoring station called the Waskōw ohci Pimâtisiwin station, which means “air of life.” The station detects acute concentrations of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide and warns residents when an emergency response may be required.

A More Timely Response

Another recommendation being implemented is the creation of an odour response protocol for oil sands operations to help ensure a more timely response to odour complaints, identification of the source of emissions, better communication to the community, and greater transparency about the actions taken to address complaints.

“A key challenge will be to test solutions with all partners in a timely way, make sure everyone agrees on the best approach, and then monitor its implementation to make sure we are reaching the goal in mind,” says Merry Turtiak, director of Environmental Public Health Science at Alberta Health.

When asked about the biggest challenge facing the committee, the AER’s Severson-Baker says it’s figuring out what is causing the odours and what is contributing to elevated levels of certain air pollutants.

“We first need to understand which sources are the most important contributors and understand under what conditions they occur—whether it’s related to the weather or specific plant-site operation activities—and once we have that information, we can come up with a plan to reduce odours,” he says.

More to be Done

While there’s been much effort, it’s too early to say when the air in Fort McKay will improve. Chief Boucher insists there’s more work to be done, questions that need to be answered, and challenges that lie ahead.

While encouraged by the work to date, he notes that, “ultimately, we must see improvements in air quality and in the way companies operate to better control emissions.”

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