Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 26, 2005
Industry boom disturbs rural tranquility
Parishioner finds help in bid to save quality of life
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Thirteen years ago Anne Brown and her husband Mike moved from Peace River to the Riverside subdivision near Fort Saskatchewan thinking this would be the place where they would raise their children and perhaps retire.
The couple thought they had picked the perfect spot to build their house - an area in the midst of the woods, near the Sturgeon River with little noise and clean air. Little by little they built a 1,900-square-foot house, one of 40 homes in the subdivision.
Other subdivisions sprung up in the area and now there are more than 100 homes in three subdivisions with a population of about 400 people.
But Brown, along with other families in the area, questions whether her family will be able to stay for the long term. Pollution from the neighbouring petrochemical industries, she said, might end up driving them out.
"This was the place we wanted to spend the rest of our lives. Obviously we have to question how long we can stay," she lamented.
"We spent a lot of time building it, we raised our (three) children here, we have a lot of memories here. But obviously you look at the future and you are afraid of the future, of what the long-term health effects could be on your children.
"Our children are first, our health is first so we'll just watch and see what happens. Until then, we will fight to protect what we have."
Brown, a member of Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Fort Saskatchewan, has been fighting against sulphur dioxide emissions for several years.
"I think I do what I do based on my faith," she said. "As a Catholic I have a responsibility to protect the environment and to protect human life."
Her struggle was inspired by former WCR columnist Hank Zyp, who in an article in 2000 wrote about the need for Catholics to care for the environment.
One of Brown's biggest concerns is industrial encroachment, which she blames squarely on "poor planning" and a "lack of concern for people."
Industrial encroachment began in 2001, following the creation of a large industrial area just a mile away from residential subdivisions. Known as Alberta's Industrial Heartland, the area encompasses 330 square kms in the counties of Strathcona, Sturgeon, Lamont and the city of Fort Saskatchewan. It was created to attract further chemical, petrochemical and petroleum industries to the area.
Brown and other area residents fought the rezoning in court but lost the battle. As a result, they now face the prospect of having heavy industry operating a short distance from their residences in the next few years. "We already feel their presence," she said. "We are going to be directly affected by this project - our environment, health, air quality and infrastructure."
Brown has received support from many area residents, her parish and the Greater Edmonton Alliance, a coalition of churches, unions and NGOs.
Father Duncan MacDonnell, former pastor of Our Lady of the Angels, described her as a "beautiful wife, mother and parishioner" who has invested time, talent and treasure to prevent the big multinationals from destroying God's creation. "She is showing the way for all of us."
Since the creation of the Industrial Heartland, there have been several new industrial developments and expansions including the Shell Upgrader and the Dow Chemicals Upgrader. In addition, there are about 10 new proposed developments either approved or waiting for approval, including another Shell expansion, a sulphur storage plant and upgraders for BA Energy, Terassen and Northwest.
The 60 or so families that live within the Industrial Heartland itself are even in a worse predicament because they are virtually sharing space with chemical plants, according to Brown.
"Industrial encroachment . . . has robbed residents' quality of life, placed restrictions on their property and left their property virtually unmarketable," she contends. "Property owners, some who have owned their property for 60 years, are forced to endure noise levels similar to a jet engine in their living room, odours that burn their nose, flares that light up their homes and chemical accidents."
Brown said the solution is simple. "First of all, they need to get adequate spatial distance between residents and industry," she said.
"Our community has always asked for three miles of spatial distance. We are already three miles from Dow Chemicals and we can feel the presence, so we feel like we don't want to be any closer. You have to look at this whole big picture of 300 square kms and the cumulative effects of that; it's not like we just have one plant."
She also wants relocation assistance to be available to all affected residents, not just those who live inside the industrial zone. A program currently being set up the Alberta Industrial Heartland Association would only assist those who live within the Industrial Heartland and who are affected by more than one industry. Under the proposed Voluntary Property Purchase program residents can apply to have their land purchased. Funds for the land purchases will come from industry, the affected municipalities and the province.
"At this point, we do not want to be relocated; we want to protect what we have," Brown said. "However, we are concerned about the long term and need assurance that if we are affected in similar ways as those who live within (the Industrial Heartland), those responsible will accept responsibility rather than families paying the price."
Cheryl Henkelman and her elderly parents own a property within the Industrial Heartland and have been severely affected by industry. Their house sits on 160 acres of land, where they raise horses and sheep.
After the Industrial Heartland was formed, their land was rezoned from agricultural and environmental to heavy industrial. They also had restrictions placed on their property: they cannot build or expand or have new people move into the area.
"This is piece of paradise with spruce trees, pine trees, rolling hills and sandy soil," noted Cheryl. "It's beautiful, but we are completely surrounded by industry."
"As a Catholic I have a responsibility to protect the environment and to protect human life."
- Anne Brown
The Henkelmans have a massive fertilizer plant directly across the river from them, a new upgrader that is being built about half a mile away and a huge Shell chemical, Shell refinery and Shell upgrader that is about a mile and a quarter away.
Living side by side with chemical plants is not an option for the Henkelmans, who complain of "nauseating odours that never go away and noises that you can hear through your wall in your bedroom at night."
The air quality is so bad "your throat would get really raw, you cough a lot and your eyes burn," Cheryl noted. "Sometimes there are odours that are so sickening that you actually have to go indoors."
The Henkelmans didn't want to sell at first but now they know they have to go.
"(Leaving this place) is heartbreaking but we can't stay here much longer," Cheryl said. "This is home. This is where we came for refuge. My grandfather purchased it and then he gave it to my father (the Rev. Percy Henkelman, bishop of the Moravian Church). It was a place where my parents knew they would retire to and we all figured we would just live out our days."
Brown says the Henkelmans' story is common in the area.
"Many of the residents who are affected are seniors - seniors who should be enjoying their golden years rather than suffering with headaches and other ill effects and struggling through their day because of a lack of sleep caused by industrial noise."
Jana Tolmie-Thompson of the Alberta Industrial Heartland Association, an association representing the companies with plants in the area, said her organization is aware of the hardships facing residents who live in the industrial zone and is trying to speed up the establishment of the voluntary property purchase program.
Those like Brown who live outside the zone may benefit from the program in the future if it is found they are being impacted by industry, she said.
"This is an opportunity to sell (their land) to a land trust in order to relocate (because) obviously industry is not going away; it's been there for 50-60 years," Tolmie-Thompson noted.
As for air quality, she said the Fort Air Partnership performs moment-by-moment air quality monitoring throughout the area.
"All the studies have always proved very favourable," she said. "It is probably better out there than it is if you are in downtown Edmonton, of course. The same with the noise; if you are living out there it is quieter than if you are living some place just off of Whitemud Drive (in Edmonton)."
The current one-mile buffer zone between residential areas and heavy industry is based on risk assessments and measurements that meet North American standards, Tolmie-Thompson said.
Brown gets disappointed sometimes but said the situation is so critical she has no option but to continue her fight for the environment.
But at least she has others on her side.
Jeremy Bell, the Greater Edmonton Alliance representative for Our Lady of the Angels Parish, has been helping Brown create awareness of the situation in the community.
Recently they met with almost every pastor in the Fort Saskatchewan area "trying to build interest" and garner support.
"This is affecting people's lives and we can't just ignore it," he said.