Government of Alberta moves to improve air quality for residents of Fort McKay
The government of Alberta has concluded a yearlong study on air quality in the First Nations community of Fort McKay, Alberta. Fort McKay is located on the west side of the Athabasca River 58 km north of Fort McMurray. There are 6 oil sands mining operations, several upgraders and one in-situ facility located within a 30 km radius of the town. Odours and air quality have been an ongoing concern for the community.
The study analyzed complaints logged over a 4-year period (from 2010 to 2014) and found that emissions do at times exceed odour and health thresholds. Since January 2010, residents have logged 172 complaints to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER):
- 165 of those complaints were related to odours which they attribute to nearby oil sands mining operations
- The number of days per year where odours were reported varied from 13 (in 2012/13) to 39 (in 2014).
- The worst months were August and September.
- The odours were described primarily as hydrocarbon, although residents also reported smelling sulphur, ammonia, or combinations of the three.
Out of 523 inspections carried out over the 4 years, 35 non-compliances were identified. The AER also speculates that the increase in complaints observed in 2014 might be due to increased awareness.
The government has published a final report outlining 17 recommendations, including:
- improving consistency in industrial and ambient air quality monitoring
- assessing the long-term and cumulative health effects of emissions
- developing a better understanding of the link between emissions, air quality and odours
- improving response and communication for odour complaints between the AER, Health Canada, Alberta Health Services, the oil sands operators and the community of Fort McKay.
The AER is not directly involved in human health regulation, but does regulate monitoring and reporting of air quality and emissions. Public policy authority rests with the Government of Alberta and the Ministry of Health.
The province already publishes a real-time air quality map. Air quality in the city of Fort McMurray, located just south of the oil sands mining operations, consistently rate as "ideal" on the Air Quality Health Index, outperforming the air quality of larger cities such as Calgary and Edmonton. However, the authors concede it isn't clear exactly where odours detected in Fort McKay originate from.