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Alleged destruction of agricultural lands with tar sands waste in northern Alberta by Shell and others

Not all tar sands waste ends up in tailings ponds.  As described in the attached paper – in Alberta it is spread on arable land.  This practise is actually encouraged by the Alberta Government agencies and regulations.

By Pat McNamara and Carmen Langer


The sheer idiocy of landfarming and the Alberta government’s handling of it, defies logic and all concern for our health. Our government allows industry to dispose of their contaminated oilsands waste on the clean soil we use to grow our food. Science shows us that this practice poisons air, soil, water, plants and animals; all of the things we depend on to lead long and healthy lives.

Landfarming has been called different names in different places, at different times; landspraying, landspraying while drilling, landspreading, landfarming. Alberta changed the name to “Biodegradation” in last month’s edition of Directive 50 (landfarming regulations). This is a misnomer as only the organic components biodegrade. The toxic oilsands waste being spread on fields has been biodegrading in the ground for 60-100 million years. The toxic material we’re pulling out of the ground has resisted biodegration for millions of years. (1) How can the Alberta government claim it will biodegrade on a farmer’s field in a couple of growing seasons?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states: “A land farm must be managed properly to prevent both on-site and off-site problems with ground water, surface water, air, and food chain contamination. Runoff collection facilities must be constructed and monitored. The possible leaching of contaminants from the contaminated soil into the ground and groundwater is a major concern”. (2) In spite of the caution expressed by the EPA and others, the Alberta government has not managed landfarming properly.

“Landspraying While Drilling” (LWD) began in the early 1990s on private land in Alberta and on public land by 1998. The practice was discontinued in 2001 on public land when problems with the vegetation became apparent. The Alberta Sustainable Resource Development completed a study on LWD in 2003 titled Landspraying While Drilling (LWD) but kept it secret until 2006. A report on the study states: “This is probably because the results of the review of “landspraying while drilling” reflect badly not only on industry’s operations but also on government’s ability to effectively monitor and enforce compliance”. (3)

The report details a litany of non-compliances and abuses by industry and a lack of oversight by government. The report concluded that many changes had to take place before any further waste was spread on public land. The moratorium is still in place on public lands.

A number of studies have been completed to determine the health effects on mammals of exposure to landfarmed properties. The following statements were taken from a study chronicled in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health and referenced to other studies that found the same conclusions.

a) “Studies of wild cotton rats inhabiting petroleum waste sites have documented effects at the genetic, cellular, and population levels. Increased incidences of chromosomal aberrations were detected in cotton rats from petrochemical contaminated sites”. (4)

b) “Because of their ability to bioaccumulate, organic contaminants are of particular interest. Adult cotton rats exposed to various doses of benzene and cyclophosphamide exhibited a wide range of effects, including decreased thymus weight, low spleen weight, low hematocrit, and reduced lymphocyte numbers”. (4) (5)

c) ”The results of this study suggest that residual petrochemical waste affects the immune system and hematology of cotton rats living on abandoned landfarms during summer and is complicated by variation in the contaminants found on individual petroleum sites”. (4)

d) “Relative spleen size was significantly reduced in rats collected from land farm sites”. (4) (6)

e) “Rats collected from landfarms at units 1 and 3 showed the most alterations in their immune system. These sites corresponded to those that had the highest level of many of the contaminants measured”. (4) (6)

The health effects on rats and other mammals continue for many years after the contaminated oilfield waste is spread on fields because many of the components of the waste take a very long time to break down. Some of them never biodegrade. They are released to air or accumulate in soil and in groundwater. In the words of others:

a) Lighter hydrocarbons are mobile and can be a problem at considerable distances from their point of release due to transport in ground, water or air. (11)

b) Another concern with land farming is that while lower molecular-weight petroleum compounds biodegrade efficiently, higher molecular-weight compounds biodegrade more slowly. This can lead to accumulation of high molecular weight compounds. At high concentrations, these recalcitrant constituents can increase soil-water repellency, affect plant growth, reduce the ability of the soil to support a diverse community of organisms, and render the land farm no longer useable without treatment or amendment. (8) (9)

c) Land farming has been proven most successful in treating petroleum hydrocarbons and other less volatile, biodegradable contaminants. The more chlorinated or nitrated the compound, the more difficult it is to degrade. Many mixed products and wastes include some volatile components that transfer to atmosphere before they can be degraded. (2)

d) Wastes that contain significant levels of biologically available heavy metals and persistent toxic compounds are not good candidates for land farming, as these substances can accumulate in the soil to a level that renders the land unfit for further use. (8) (10)

e) “Most petroleum waste organics can be degraded with a properly designed bioremediation project. However, bioremediation is of limited value to inorganic components of petroleum waste”. (4) (6)

f) “Asphaltenes, resins, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heavy metals are not readily biodegradable and may remain in the environment for prolonged periods”. (4) (7)

g) Under some conditions PHC (Petroleum Hydrocarbon) can degrade soil quality by interfering with water retention and transmission, and with nutrient supplies. (11)


Considering the studies show that landfarming can cause significant health effects in mammals as well as the contamination of our air, water, soil, plants and food supply, why does the Alberta government allow this practice to continue? It’s quite simple really. The Alberta government is compromising and shortening our lives to enhance profitability of the oilsands companies they regulate.

Marty Proctor, the chief operating officer for Baytex (oilsands producer), told the Peace River Gazette newspaper that it is more cost-effective to spread the oilsands waste on farm fields than it is to take it to the landfill site adjacent to the landfarmed fields. Locals pay a very steep price so Baytex and their investors can fatten their bank account.

Baytex has been in the news the past two months over landfarming in the Three Creeks area. The ERCB (Energy Resources Conservation Board) issued Baytex a “High risk enforcement order” on April 15th when Baytex was found to have deposited large quantities of oil/tarsands crude on two quarters of land along with their drill tailings. But the story doesn’t start there.

The ERCB dropped the ball on this to start with and then tried to cover it up. Carmen Langer started calling the ERCB in mid-January advising them that the material Baytex was spreading on properties near the landfill contained oil and that it wasn’t being spread properly. Candace MacDonald and Leanne Chartrand from ERCB assured Mr. Langer that they had inspected the fields themselves on a number of occasions and nothing wrong with them.

The ERCB did not start proceedings against Baytex until after Mr. Langer showed up in the fields with an environmental chemist to take samples and a television camera crew to record it. The property owner granted them permission to do so.

The response was swift. Baytex brought in a Bobcat and started scraping up the most obvious contaminated material. Though they removed the most egregious material, it was impossible for Bobcats to be thorough as the oilsands waste covered the entire field. The ERCB was running around all over the field while their consultants conducted testing. The activity carried on until very late at night.

The ERCB issued a “High Risk Enforcement Order” to Baytex the following day. Baytex was interviewed on local radio on April 15 and declared that all the offending material would be off the field by 4:00 pm that day. The ERCB then gave the remediation of the property a “clean bill of health”.

It was obvious to the eye that most of the oil-bearing waste had not been removed from the field. You could see the intermittent scrapes the Bobcat made, but the contaminated material still covered the vast majority of the field’s surface area. On April 28th, I helped the environmental chemist take another set of samples at seven o’clock in the morning. Shortly after we returned to the Langer residence at 9:00 am, we received a phone call from the landowner informing us that we no longer had permission to sample the field.. It turns out that Bill Krepps, Baytex’s senior representative in the area, drove by the field while we were taking samples.

Our suspicions of the presence of contaminated material were confirmed with a second set of samples we took after Baytex and the ERCB claimed the fields were entirely cleaned up. Samples of the spread material were collected at five separate locations of the contaminated fields and characterized for hydrocarbon. All had extremely high PAH concentrations and exhibited patterns of petroleum biomarkers entirely consistent with the Peace River bitumen and earlier samples collected at this contaminated site.

The ERCB falsely claimed the field was not contaminated for three months. Once the cameras and the scientist showed up, The ERCB forced Baytex into action and then falsely claimed the site was cleaned up. Since then, the ERCB has refused to answer questions or respond to requests for information from residents. This is the epitome of corrupt and/or irresponsible behaviour. These are the people charged with ensuring we are healthy and safe from the effects of the oilsands industry.

In an ironic twist, the land Baytex spread their contaminated waste on, sits adjacent to the landfill site where it should have gone. Obviously, Baytex didn’t save any money on transportation costs. Baytex took advantage of the depressed agricultural economy in this area whereby a farmer is willing to take the risk of contaminating his land to try to make ends meet. This situation also speaks to the incompetence of the Alberta government. They allow the deposition of toxic material into all parts of our environment instead of isolating it from our air, our water, our soil, our food and our lungs in the landfill next to these fields.

Baytex tried to do damage control afterward when Marty Proctor, their chief operating officer was quoted in the Peace River Gazette saying: “Unfortunately the service provider that operated the vacuum truck hauling those (drill) cuttings pulled a small amount of oil in his truck, so when he was spreading the cuttings, a small amount of oil was laid on the field”. Mr. Proctor’s attempt to pass this off as a small amount of oil is pure nonsense as subsequent testing of the field showed oil to be present in every sample taken. This was systemic contamination, not an isolated incident or truck load.

As the ERCB conducted an investigation into Baytex’s exceedances, I’ve requested a GLP audit of the investigation conducted for the ERCB by AGAT Labs commencing on or about April 12th, 2011. Further, I would like the results of any subsequent investigation into this matter conducted by any and all agencies of the Alberta government.

ERCB spokesman Daren Barter told the newspaper that they don’t test the oilsands waste before or after its spread on fields due to staff limitations. Mr. Barter stated: “It is the company’s responsibility to follow the rules. We can’t be there in every location throughout the province every time something is done,” he said.

Mr. Barter’s excuse has no merit in light of the fact they didn’t appropriately respond to a resident’s complaint who had 25 years experience in the oilsands industry. Further, the shortcomings of the ERCB expose the inadequacies of voluntary compliance as a means of regulating the Peace River Oilsands. In the words of others:

“Voluntary compliance and self regulation reduce government accountability and government’s role in ensuring the public interest in environmental protection is met. Voluntary agreements implicitly bind the hand of governments that sign them, inhibiting regulation. This may happen without the public realizing that power has shifted from government”. (12)

The lack of oversight by the ERCB has allowed Baytex to conduct their affairs outside of regulatory parameters in other parts of their operations as well. I’ve passed reports from anonymous oilsands workers to ERCB concerning unreported and unremediated spills at Baytex drilling sites. I’ve heard nothing from the ERCB or Baytex despite submitting a series of questions to determine the authenticity of the reports.

The ERCB saves Baytex and other landfarmers money by not holding them to the same standards as agricultural operators. Farmers have to incorporate manure into the soil when spread on fields. Baytex doesn’t have to work the contaminated oilsands waste in despite the fact that it is many times more toxic than manure.

The ERCB is currently allowing Baytex to operate a “temporary tank farm” storing thousands of barrels of oil without vapour collection systems or containment berms. The number of emission events has risen dramatically since the temporary tank farm started up. We have had about a dozen elevated emission events in the past month.

The hydrocarbon odour was very strong from the landfarmed fields. Southerly winds have blown these emissions along with those from the landfill and the unrecovered vapours from Baytex’s temporary tank farm toward the Langer farm in Three Creeks. This is evidenced by the high number of emission events that have been recorded in the past six weeks. Science leaves no doubt that these three sources release toxic emissions and that they can travel great distances.

The ERCB, Alberta Environment and Alberta Agriculture have refused to respond to any of the concerns about landfarming we’ve raised at the Emissions Working Group during the past year. They’ve not answered questions or provided residents with requested documents. How dangerous is landfarming to our health? What are they hiding?


The Langer family have to be asking themselves these questions considering four homes on four properties, are literally surrounded by 500 acres that Shell landfarmed in the mid 1990s. They get emissions regardless of the wind direction. How much harm has been done to their health from the emissions from the oilsands waste that was spread on their fields for the last 15 years?

Shell Oil contacted the Langer family to see if they were interested in having drilling waste spread on their farmland. Alberta Agriculture assured the Langers there were many benefits from spreading drilling waste including phosphates and nitrogen into the soil.

They decided to go ahead with the project but regretted their decision while the waste was still being spread. The contractor went ahead and tried to spread the toxic waste while the fields were saturated with water. They had to bring tractors in to drag the vacuum trucks around the field. In addition to making a mess of the field, they risked having the toxins “pool up” due to high water levels and ruts from the equipments.

The Langers knew there was something wrong with the land right from the start and spoke out to right this wrong. Carmen Langer, the third generation of Langers operating this farm, has been especially persistent and vociferous in the intervening fifteen years. He has seldom missed an opportunity to raise the issue with whichever authority happens to be around. It was his knowledge of the contamination of his own land that led him to recognize the harm that Baytex was causing. It was his dedication to this issue and his neighbours that led him to force the ERCB to address it.

The north field grew a reasonable barley crop last year but the underseeded, certified alfalfa seed barely sprouted, then died. There is no crop on that field this year. There is nothing in the field but dandelions, stinkweed and rose bushes. There are many areas of bare, whitish soil. The $7000 in lost seed costs was bad enough but of far greater concern is that there will be no hay grown on a large piece of the Langer farm this year or next. This is a severe hardship for their cattle operation.

The 125-acre dead field would have grown almost 400 bales of hay in an average year, or enough to winter about 40 cows. The Langers had to pay $103 per bale delivered in the yard last winter as replacement hay necessitated by low crop yields on landfarmed areas and inadequate rainfall. Combined with the cost of seed, they’ve lost $48,000 because alfalfa will not grow on landfarmed areas of the property. If the alfalfa seed would have taken last year, the Langers wouldn’t have had any input costs to the hay field for the next five years and harvested $200,000 worth of hay (at above price and average crop yield). This is the lost income from only one quarter of the landfarmed area, though admittedly the worst field. Now they have to pay to reseed before any crop is harvested.

Though some grain crops can be grown on the landfarmed area with varying levels of success, alfalfa and peas will not grow on it. This is critical to the Langer operation because they’re cattle farmers who feed mostly hay and peas. The Langers no longer have enough land to summer pasture their cattle and put up enough hay to last through the winter. They’ve been forced to rent other land in the community for hay production.

The Langers were not told until after the oilsands waste was spread on the fields that they would not be appropriate to be used as pasture going forward. They weren’t told that the soil should be tilled frequently. Once pastures are worked and seeded, they are not tilled for 5 to 10 years and sometimes longer. The Langers were not told about the steps they would have to take to bring the soil back to productive, though reduced capacity.

The accepted method of enhancing biodegradation (of some parts) of the toxic oilsands waste spread on farm fields is as follows, according to “The Drilling Waste Management Information System” published by Argonne Laboratory:

“Optimizing Land Farm Operations: The addition of water, nutrients, and other amendments (e.g., manure, straw) can increase the biological activity and aeration of the soil, thereby preventing the development of conditions that might promote leaching and mobilization of inorganic contaminants. During periods of extended dry conditions, moisture control may also be needed to minimize dust. Periodic tillage of the mixture (to increase aeration) and nutrient additions to the waste-soil mixture can enhance aerobic biodegradation of hydrocarbons. After applying the wastes, hydrocarbon concentrations are monitored to measure progress and determine the need for enhancing the biodegradation processes. Application rates should be controlled to minimize the potential for runoff”. (8)

The Langers have managed to improve the production of a couple of fields through trial and error, usually using one of the methods they should have been told about at the very beginning. It is absurd that farmers are responsible for the addition of materials and the cost of tillage to rehabilitate formally productive land. The cost of deposition and tillage of so many hundreds of tonnes of fertilizer, fibre and manure required to remediate 500 acres is staggering, especially when added to the cost of lost production during the years-long remediation period.

If the Langers lost almost $50,000 on 125 acres in one year due to lost production caused by landfarming, how much has land farming cost them on 500 acres over the past 15 years? How much will they lose in lost production and remediation costs over the next decade trying to rehabilitate the soil?

The Langers are in the process of totaling all costs and losses to seek compensation from government and industry. Recently uncovered documents show emphatically that the Alberta government has known of the damage caused to rangeland and pasture by landfarming for at least a decade. The criticism the government received from rangeland managers throughout the province forced them to shut down landfarming on public lands in 2001.

Shell Oil has refused to compensate the Langer family citing findings in an extremely flawed 2005 Alberta Research Council report that the loss of productivity on the Langer farm is the result of the studied field being plowed; notwithstanding that the most severely affected field had not been plowed nor that all the severely affected public lands in Alberta had not been plowed. The report fails to:

a) Report key soil parameters such as cation exchange capacity (CEC).

b) Address the issue of asphaltene toxicity to plants and release of heavy metals (obvious in the data presented) Note that asphaltenes comprise approximately 20% of the oil applied to the soil.

c) Present evidence substantiating the claim of A and B horizon mixing due to plowing such as the bimodal particle size distribution that would be expected. Note: There is no evident mixing apparent in photographs presented.

d) Provide rationale for selection of a control site far removed from the field under study.

e) Explain the large differences in Na, K, Ca and Mg concentrations between the affected and control soils.

It should be noted that the ARC report does not dispute the substantial degradation of the soil after Shell Oil spread toxic asphaltene-containing tailings on the Langer lands. There is much for the government to answer to.


This is an agricultural community growing food for Canadians, Americans and other places in the world. The oilsands companies with their toxic wastes, emissions and attitudes moved into our clean environment. What will happen to our livelihoods if they find our produce is contaminated? It only took one cow with BSE to shut down Alberta’s beef industry.

One of the main concerns of many farmers is the fear of inadvertently putting contaminated food into the food chain. We’ve seen the animals laying sick and immobile on the ground. We don’t have enough information to determine if those animals should be sent for slaughter or disposal. The province continues to reassure us that everything is healthy but we feel no comfort after seeing our animals suffer.

The fields that Baytex contaminated are contracted to grow timothy for export to Japan this year. Will the timothy be sent to Japan? Will the Japanese be advised that the timothy was grown in contaminated soil?

Wild and cultivated plants will take up contaminants and move them up the food chain to animals. What impact will the plant-borne contaminants have on the deer, moose, elk and other animals people harvest for food in the area? Will it affect the quality and purity of Peace River honey? So many questions, so few answers.

We must also consider the damage done to the community pasture from landfarming in the 1990s. We should be warning the owners of the 4000 head of cattle pastured there that the landfarmed areas are contaminated. Has this been done in the past? These cattle come from all parts of Alberta. What will they take with them inside their bodies when they leave in the fall?

Landfarming causes unnecessary contamination of our soil, our air, our water, our animals and our bodies. Our bodies are already loaded with a range of toxins from forest fires, emissions from the pulp mill, the pipeline spill and emissions and wastes from oilsand operations.

We must take this opportunity to eliminate one of the sources of toxins we’re exposed to. It’s simply a matter of depositing the oilsands waste into the landfill instead of spreading it on farmers fields. It’s time for our government and the oilsands companies that spread toxic waste on the area fields to clean and rehabilitate them. It’s time that the practice of landfarming be stopped before any more land is damaged.

Landfarming not only disposes of drilling wastes from the oilsands, it also disposes of good healthy farmland that we depend on to stay alive. It time for the government to act responsibly and end this insidious practice.

Pat McNamara

NOTE: Please forward this paper to your contacts and through your listserves so Albertans understand the damage being done by landfarming and the incompetence of the ERCB and Alberta government in dealing with this issue.

If you have any concerns about landfarming on your property or would like to know more about it, please contact:

Pat McNamara [email protected]

Carmen Langer (780) 219-0246


1) The Chemistry of Alberta Oilsands, Bituminous and Heavy Oils, Strausz, O.P. and E.M. Loun, 2003

2) Bioremediation Using the Land Treatment Concept, EPA

3) Cheryl Bradley, The Alberta Native Plant Council Newsletter, 2007

4) Ecotoxicological Risks Associated With Land Treatment of Petrochemical Wasres, Wilson et al, 2003, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health

5) Acute effects of benzene and cyclophosphamide exposure on cellular and humoral immunity of cotton rats, McMurry et al, 1991

6) Ecotoxicological risks associated with land treatment of petrochemical wastes. Schroder et al, 2003

7) Composting of heavy oil refinery sludge. Environ. Prog. Milne et al, 1998

8) Offsite Commercial Disposal of Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Waste, Argonne Labs, 2006, Chicago, Ill.

9) “Effects of Earthworm (Eisenia Fetida) and Wheat (Triticum Aestivum) Straw Additions on Selected Properties of Petroleum-Contaminated Soils,” Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Callahan et al, 2002

10) “Exploration and Production (E&P) Waste Management Guidelines,” Report No. 2.58/196, September, E&P Forum, 1993

11) Canada-Wide Standard for Petroleum Hydrocarbons (PHC) in Soil, Executive Summary, 2008

12) Round Table On Self Regulation, Voluntary Compliance And Environmental Protection, Ontario Ministry of the Environment

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