PEACE RIVER, Alta. - Hearings are scheduled to begin this week on odours blamed on oilsands operations that have driven northern Alberta families off their land and at least one of the affected farmers hopes it will all wind up with tougher rules against bad smells.

"The best result possible is that they make some regulations to get companies to capture their vapours," said Alain Labrecque, who's had to leave the farm his father pioneered over pungent smells that he says are destroying the health of his wife and children.

The hearings, scheduled to begin in Peace River on Tuesday, were called last fall by Alberta's energy regulator after repeated complaints from families in the tiny communities of Three Creeks and Reno.

In an affidavit filed with the regulator, Labrecque complained of powerful, gassy smells and symptoms including severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion, muscle spasms, popping ears, memory loss, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, eye twitching and fatigue.

All those symptoms began in 2011, after Baytex Energy purchased 46 wells in the area.

Baytex uses an unusual method of heating bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract the oil. While there are other operators in Three Creeks, Baytex is the only one in Reno.

Previously released studies commissioned by the regulator strongly suggested that Baytex's operations were the source of the odours.

One found that the bitumen produced in the area is rich in sulphur, a common source of bad smells. Another showed the amount of gas vented from a large area that includes Peace River has roughly doubled since 2010.

Another cast doubt on the quality of data from Baytex-commissioned reports measuring air contaminant levels.

New studies have reached similar conclusions.

"Venting is the likely issue," said a study from one consultant, who added that previous studies on the issue probably underestimated odour impacts by a factor of two.

Another report found that while contaminants in the air have remained below levels required to damage health, odours themselves can cause many of the symptoms the families complain of.

"Studies of the health impacts of odours have revealed a number of different symptoms that can be attributed to odour alone, fully distinct from toxicological effects," said Donald Davies of Intrinsik Environmental Sciences.

Taken together, the findings reveal a gap in Alberta's oilpatch rules, said lawyer Keith Wilson, who is representing the Labrecques.

Those rules govern emissions of toxic gases or gases that can be collected in enough quantity to be profitable. But they don't directly address the production of odours.

"The regulations that we have in place now are designed for one of two things — either for the traditional oilsand operations or the old conventional oil and gas," said Wilson. "This type of production, where they're pulling it out of the ground cold and heating it on the surface in open tanks, that is an approach that the regulations were never written for."

Baytex spokesman Andrew Loosley said the company welcomes the hearings, which will run for eight days.

He said the company has taken steps to try and address odour problems. No new wells have been drilled for two years and a pipeline is being installed to help carry off fumes.

Baytex hopes the hearings will clarify what's expected of industry operators, Loosley said.

"We like to have clear line-of-sight with everything that we do. We believe that's important so everybody understands what the expectations are.

"We feel that it's important to have a safe environment for our workers as well as the residents in the area, so as far as we're concerned, the government will set the regulations and we're going to abide by them."

The regulator has said it will release its findings by the end of March.

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  • Syncrude Upgrader and Oil Sands

    The refining or upgrading of the tarry bitumen which lies under the oil sands consumes far more oil and energy than conventional oil and produces almost twice as much carbon. Each barrel of oil requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water from the neighboring Athabasca River. About 90% of this is returned as toxic tailings into the vast unlined tailings ponds that dot the landscape. Syncrude alone dumps 500,000 tons of toxic tailings into just one of their tailings ponds everyday.

  • Boreal Forest and Coast Mountains / Atlin Lake, British Columbia | 2001

    This area, located in the extreme northwest of British Columbia, marks the western boundary of the Boreal region. On the border of the Yukon and Southeast Alaska, the western flank of these mountains descends into Alaska's Tongass Rainforest and British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Far from the oil sands, the greatest remaining coastal temperate and marine ecosystem is imminently threatened by the proposal to build a 750-mile pipeline to pump 550,000 barrels per day of oil sands crude to the coast. Once there, it would be shipped through some of the most treacherous waters, virtually assuring an ecological disaster at some point in the future.

  • Tailings Pond in Winter, Abstract #2 / Alberta Tar Sands | 2010

    Even in the extreme cold of the winter, the toxic tailings ponds do not freeze. On one particularly cold morning, the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue, combined to produce abstractions that reminded me of a Jackson Pollock canvas.

  • Aspen and Spruce | Northern Alberta | 2001

    Photographed in late autumn in softly falling snow, a solitary spruce is set against a sea of aspen. The Boreal Forest of northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. Canada's Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption.

  • Tar Sands at Night #1 | Alberta Oil Sands | 2010

    Twenty four hours a day the oil sands eats into the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet's greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forests and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast they can be seen from outer space.

  • Dry Tailings #2 | Alberta Tar Sands | 2010

    In an effort to deal with the problem of tailings ponds, Suncor is experimenting with dry tailings technology. This has the potential to limit, or eliminate, the need for vast tailings ponds in the future and lessen this aspect of the oil sands' impact.

  • Tailings Pond Abstract #2 | Alberta Tar Sands / 2010

    So large are the Alberta Tar Sands tailings ponds that they can be seen from space. It has been estimated by Natural Resources Canada that the industry to date has produced enough toxic waste to fill a canal 32 feet deep by 65 feet wide from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, and on to Ottawa, a distance of over 2,000 miles. In this image, the sky is reflected in the toxic and oily waste of a tailings pond.

  • Confluence of Carcajou River and Mackenzie River | Mackenzie Valley, NWT | 2005

    The Caracajou River winds back and forth creating this oxbow of wetlands as it joins the Mackenzie flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. This region, almost entirely pristine, and the third largest watershed basin in the world, will be directly impacted by the proposed Mackenzie Valley National Gas Pipeline to fuel the energy needs of the Alberta Oil Sands mega-project.

  • Black Cliff | Alberta Oil Sands | 2005

    Oil sands pit mining is done in benches or steps. These benches are each approximately 12-15 meters high. Giant shovels dig the oil sand and place it into heavy hauler trucks that range in size from 240 tons to the largest trucks, which have a 400-ton capacity.

  • Oil Sands Upgrader in Winter| Alberta Oil Sands | 2010

    The Alberta oil sands are Canada's single largest source of carbon. They produce about as much annually as the nation of Denmark. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires more water and uses almost twice as much energy as the production of conventional oil. Particularly visible in winter, vast plumes of toxic pollution fill the skies. The oil sands are so large they create their own weather systems.

  • Boreal Forest and Wetland | Athabasca Delta Northern Alberta | 2010

    Located just 70 miles downstream from the Alberta oil sands, the Athabasca Delta is the world's largest freshwater delta. It lies at the convergence of North America's four major flyways and is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and considered one of the most globally significant wetlands. It is threatened both by the massive water consumption of the tar sands and its toxic tailings ponds.

  • Tar Pit #3

    This network of roads reminded me of a claw or tentacles. It represents for me the way in which the tentacles of the tar sands reach out and wreak havoc and destruction. Proposed pipelines to American Midwest, Mackenzie Valley, and through the Great Bear Rainforest will bring new threats to these regions while the pipelines fuel new markets and ensure the proposed five fold expansion of the oil sands.

  • <strong>NEXT -----> Craziest Pictures of the oilsands</strong>

  • Syncrude's Mildred Lake Upgrader, part of The Syncrude Project complex for oil sands processing, is pictured Monday, March 8, 2006 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

  • The Syncrude oil sands extraction facility is reflected in a lake reclaimed from an old mine near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada on October 22, 2009.

  • A disused mining machine on display in front of the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta on October 22, 2009.

  • Tailings pond in winter.

  • Syncrude upgrader.

  • Dry tailings.

  • The Suncor oilsands operation uses trucks that are 3 stories tall, weigh one million pounds, and cost 7 million dollars each.

  • Oilsands at night.

  • A tailings pond.

  • Black Cliff in the Alberta oilsands.

  • Oilsands upgrader in winter.

  • Oilsands extraction.

  • Oil sits on the surface at a Suncor Energy Inc. oilsands mining operation near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. Photographer:

  • A large oil refinery along the Athabasca River in Alberta's Oilsands. Fort McMurray, Alberta.

  • Oils mixes with water at a tailings pond at a Suncor Energy Inc. oilsands mining operation near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013.

  • Fort McMurray is in the heart of the world's biggest single oil deposit - the Athabasca Oil Sands, and the oil is extracted by surface mining and refined in the region. The oil production is at the heart of the economy.

  • In this Aug. 5, 2005 file photo, the Syncrude upgrader spreads out towards the horizon at the company's oil sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

  • This Tuesday, July 10, 2012 aerial photo shows a Nexen oil sands facility near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

  • This Sept. 19, 2011 aerial photo shows an oilsands facility near Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada.

  • This Sept. 19, 2011 aerial photo shows an oilsands tailings pond at a mine facility near Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada.

  • This Sept. 19, 2011 aerial photo shows an oilsands tailings pond at a mine facility near Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada.

  • The Syncrude extraction facility in the northern Alberta oil sand fields is reflected in the pool of water being recycled for re-use.

  • A night view of the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta Province, Canada on October 22, 2009.

  • Aerial view of a lake and forests in the vicinity of oil sands extraction facilities near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada on October 23, 2009.

  • Workers use heavy machinery in the tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta , Canada on October 25, 2009.

  • Fort McMurray is in the heart of the world's biggest single oil deposit - the Athabasca Oil Sands, and the oil is extracted by surface mining and refined in the region. The oil production is at the heart of the economy.

  • A large oil refinery in Alberta's Oilsands project. Fort McMurray, Alberta.

  • Next: Alberta Oil Spills

  • CFB Cold Lake, CNRL

    A bitumen leak was reported at a Canadian Natural Resources oilsands operation in the weapons range part of the RCAF base in June 2013.

  • CFB Cold Lake, CNRL

    Company officials said the leak - at what it calls its Primrose operation - was caused by faulty machinery at one of the wells, affected an area of approximately 13.5 hectares and released as much as 3,200 litres of bitumen each day.

  • CFB Cold Lake, CNRL

    Preliminary tallies put the death toll from the leak at 16 birds, seven small mammals and 38 amphibians. Dozen were rescued and taken to an Edmonton centre for rehabilitation.

  • CFB Cold Lake

    As of early August 2013, more than 1.1 million litres of bitumen had been pulled from marshlands, bushes and waterways.

  • CFB Cold Lake, CNRL

    Although CNRL could not say when the leak may finally be stopped, it estimates it will likely cost more than $40 million to clean up.

  • <em>Click through for other recent spill in Alberta</em>

  • Plains Midstream

    Little Buffalo band member Melina Laboucan-Massimo scoops up July 13, 2012 what appears to oil from the pond shoreline near the site of a 4.5 million-litre Plains Midstream pipeline leak detected April 29, 2011. Photos taken at the site and released by Greenpeace of Alberta's second-worst pipeline spill suggest at least part of the site remains heavily contaminated despite company suggestions that the cleanup is complete.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    A boat passes by a boom stretching out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of sour crude near Sundre, Alberta, on June 7 and flowed downstream in the Red Deer river to the reservoir.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    Debris pushes up against a boom as it stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    A boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of sour crude near Sundre, Alberta, on June 7 and flowed downstream in the Red Deer river to the reservoir.