04/11/2014 04:49 EDT | Updated 06/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Alberta families affected by oilpatch odours may testify in U.S. Senate hearings

EDMONTON - Families who have been driven from their homes by health problems they blame on odours from oilsands operations in northern Alberta have been invited to testify at United States Senate hearings on the Keystone XL pipeline.

The families haven't decided yet whether they'll go to Washington to speak to the Senate environment and public works committee, said Brian Labreque, one of the residents invited to attend.

"It's a difficult decision to make," he said. "We're very conflicted."

Committee chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, has been holding hearings on possible environmental impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. Boxer, a Democrat, has been a staunch critic of the project.

Her invitation to families living near Baytex Energy's operations near Peace River, Alta., comes after a report from the province's energy regulator found pungent smells from those facilities could be damaging the health of local residents.

It ordered the smells to be cleaned up.

People have reported severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion, muscle spasms, popping ears, memory loss, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, eye twitching and fatigue. Seven families have now moved out of their homes because of the smells, said Labreque.

He said family members are wary of being used for political goals they don't necessarily share.

"If we were to get involved in this, there are other groups that will look at it and it'll reflect quite poorly on the oil and gas industry in Canada. It would definitely be harmful to the industry overall and that's where we have an issue.

"It's not fair to all the operators in the industry who have gone above and beyond what's required of them."

On the other hand, Labreque said people are still out of their homes and some are willing to use the invitation to create pressure for a quicker fix.

"The government hasn't stepped up as quickly on this as we would have liked. Maybe this will help accelerate things and get us some closure.

"A lot of families have lost everything and are saying, 'What have we got to lose?'"

Labreque said Americans also deserve to hear from people living near oilsands operations, not just politicians extolling the province's environmental record.

"I think (former premier Alison Redford) used the term 'responsible development.' When you've got seven families out of their homes, we can honestly say, 'No, there's no responsible development occurring here.'"

Labreque said the invitation came last week and family members are still deciding what to do.

"The discussions we've had have been very conflicted and pretty intense."

Boxer's committee has previously heard testimony from Dr. John O'Connor, an Alberta doctor who raised alarms about cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, downstream of major oilsands plants.

Alberta Health recently concluded that while two types of cancers in the community are higher than average, they are unlikely to be linked to environmental contamination. Local aboriginal groups aren't satisfied with that conclusion.

The Alberta Energy Regulator is expected to soon release its response and recommendations from the Baytex hearings report.