01/21/2014 05:54 EST | Updated 03/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Peace River Oilsands Hearing: Engineer Says Vapours From Site

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CANADA - MARCH 06: The Mildred Lake upgrader, on the grounds of The Syncrude Project in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada is pictured from the air Monday, March 6, 2006. An upgrader is part of the process in extracting useable oil from oil sands. The Syncrude Project is a joint venture operated by Syncrude Canada Ltd. and owned by Canadian Oil Sands Limited, ConocoPhillips Oilsands Partnership II, Imperial Oil Resources, Mocal Energy Limited, Murphy Oil Company Ltd., Nexen Inc., and Petro-Canada Oil and Gas. (Photo by Norm Betts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

PEACE RIVER, Alta. - Hearings have begun in northwestern Alberta about odours blamed on oilsands operations that have driven families off their land.

Residents of two tiny communities near Peace River are concerned over the way Baytex Energy has operated its oilsands extraction process in the area. They say it is creating powerful gassy smells that are impossible to live with.

One family has relocated to Smithers, B.C.

In an affidavit filed with the Alberta Energy Regulator, one resident complained of symptoms that included severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion, muscle spasms, popping ears, memory loss, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, eye twitching and fatigue.

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Baytex uses an unusual method of heating bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract oil.

Reid Glenn, a mechanical engineer, told the hearing Tuesday that his personal examination of Baytex's operations suggested vapours were coming off those tanks.

"You can see the leaks on a cold day by where the steam's coming off the top of the tank," he said.

Geologists also described the nature of the bitumen that Baytex is drilling for, describing it as being high in sulphur. Sulphur is a common component of smelly chemicals.

Baytex spokesman Andrew Loosley said the company is working within the rules.

"We care about what we do with the people that work for us as well as the residents of where we operate," he said. "Our operations right now are all within the regulatory compliance regulations and we continue to be operating our facilities in that manner."

He said the company is continuing its efforts to improve its practices and capture all vapours from the tanks.

Expert reports commissioned by the regulator suggest that Baytex's operations are the likeliest source of the odours.

Families affected by the smells have said they want the hearings to result in new rules for the oilpatch that deal specifically with bad odours. Current regulations only address toxic gases or gases that are released in enough quantity to be worth gathering and selling.

The inquiry's recommendations are expected by the end of March.