Farm­ers fight big oil

Twenty years af­ter a fire and a burst pipe­line con­tam­i­nated the land, it’s still a mess.

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Marty Klinkenber­g

First, Im­pe­rial Oil set fire to a field on her fam­ily’s farm, ig­nit­ing a layer of peat that caused the ground to cave in. Next, a pipe­line rup­tured, spilling oil into the slough that had formed af­ter the sink­hole was flooded by rain and snow. Then, the com­pany filled in the five-acre swamp with pieces of con­crete drilling pads cov­ered with sludge, tim­bers stained with hy­dro­car­bons, and other waste ma­te­ri­als.

A good neigh­bour to the oil in­dus­try un­til then, Natala Bilozer sat down with of­fi­cials from Im­pe­rial 20 years ago and de­manded the con­tam­i­na­tion on her 160-acre prop­erty south of Ed­mon­ton be cleaned up. The com­pany agreed — but two decades later, her son and daugh­ter-in-law are still bat­tling to make that hap­pen.

In a dis­pute that has out­lived Natala Bilozer and en­com­passed eight en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ters, Im­pe­rial has been di­rected to clean up the fiveacre tract by Al­berta of­fi­cials three times. As­sess­ments done by three firms on be­half of the com­pany over the last decade show the con­tam­i­na­tion has spread to ground­wa­ter and ad­ja­cent soil.

Noth­ing has been done so far to fix it, the fam­ily says.

“Govern­ment just writes the rules, it doesn’t en­force them,” says Rick Bilozer, who is 58 and car­ries youth­ful mem­o­ries of shov­el­ling grain on the nearly cen­tury-old farm be­side his late fa­ther, Joe.

In the last 10 years, en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tants hired by the com­pany have used back­hoes to claw through rye­grass and sweet clover, un­cov­er­ing slabs of con­crete stained with oil, along with steel ca­bles, me­tal con­duit, news­pa­pers, plas­tic bags, and lengths of pipe.

Ground­wa­ter mon­i­tor­ing has iden­ti­fied ex­ces­sive lev­els of ben­zene, ethyl ben­zene, chlo­ride, sodium and sul­phates, while soil sam­pling has found hy­dro­car­bons above ac­cept­able stan­dards. Bro­ken pieces from dis­carded pump­jacks lie hid­den in nearby strands of poplars.

In the last year, the Biloz­ers have met sev­eral times with Im­pe­rial Oil rep­re­sen­ta­tives, En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Diana McQueen and mem­bers of her staff. Im­pe­rial is cur­rently propos­ing to do an­other se­ries of tests, and govern­ment says it won’t in­ter­vene as long as the com­pany is work­ing on an ac­tion plan.

“They are wait­ing for us to die,” says Barb Bilozer, 53. “They try to frus­trate you, but they aren’t go­ing to beat us.

“When you are telling the truth, you stick by it.”

Im­pe­rial Oil signed its first con­tract with Joe and Natala Bilozer in 1952, set­ting up wells on four leased sites on the grain farm Joe’s fa­ther had es­tab­lished in 1917.

The com­pany op­er­ated on the prop­erty with­out in­ci­dent un­til the fall of 1970, when it set fire to a pile of brush that had been cut to make way for a road and de­vel­op­ment on the par­cel of land at the cen­tre of the dis­pute. The fam­ily says the flames spread from a tract of land Im­pe­rial had leased into an ad­join­ing field that was not part of the lease, then peat be­gan burn­ing un­der­ground. In 1982, more than 5,000 litres of oily emulsion spilled, and cleanup ef­forts left the site in such poor con­di­tion that Natala Bilozer de­manded it be re­me­di­ated. Im­pe­rial agreed to do that in 1993.

“When you are telling the truth, you stick by it.” Barb Bilozer

That June, the com­pany re­ceived per­mis­sion to fill in the land from a pub­lic health in­spec­tor who stip­u­lated that only clean fill — con­crete, gravel, clay or dirt — be used.

“The site is not to be used as a waste man­age­ment fa­cil­ity,” the per­mis­sion let­ter says.

Natala Bilozer penned a note at the time, grant­ing Im­pe­rial ac­cess to her prop­erty and say­ing she ex­pected all nec­es­sary ap­proval per­mits to be ac­quired be­fore re­me­di­a­tion be­gan.

“I un­der­stand the land will be drained and filled with clean ma­te­rial,” she wrote. “When it is brought back to its proper state, I will re­lease (the com­pany) from its re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Im­pe­rial be­gan work on the pro­ject, but when it wasn’t com­pleted 10 years later, Natala Bilozer met with a com­pany of­fi­cial in her home.

“We dis­cussed the dam­age done on my prop­erty by Im­pe­rial Oil burn­ing brush around Septem­ber 1970,” says a hand­writ­ten note dated Aug. 21, 2003. “We dis­cussed that (Im­pe­rial) is to fill with clean soil and it is to be done and fin­ished as soon as pos­si­ble.”

It was not un­til years later, when Rick Bilozer re­ceived a copy of an en­vi­ron­men­tal site as­sess­ment done in 2002, that he learned the five-acre, off-lease tract that had been burned, flooded and be­fouled had also been filled with con­tam­i­nated ma­te­ri­als.

Ever since, he and his wife have been fight­ing to have the site dug up and cleaned out. Law firms have been en­gaged, thou­sands of dollars have been spent, and prom­ises have been made and gone unkept, the fam­ily says.

“No­body wants to take re­spon­si­bil­ity,” says Rick Bilozer, who works as a build­ing main­te­nance su­per­vi­sor in Ed­mon­ton and now rents out the farm off High­way 60 be­tween Devon and Cal­mar, only a short drive from the Leduc No. 1 Dis­cov­ery Site.

Ini­tially, Im­pe­rial ar­gued that Natala Bilozer, who died in 2004 from com­pli­ca­tions re­lated to heart dis­ease, had given per­mis­sion to fill in the site in the man­ner it was done.

In­cred­u­lous, Barb and Rick Bilozer de­manded proof.

“What farmer in their right mind would say, ‘Go ahead and bring all of your con­tam­i­nated items to my place,’ ” he says.

Later, the com­pany ac­knowl­edged in an email that it could find no for­mal agree­ment with Natala, but now main­tains she gave them ver­bal per­mis­sion dur­ing a 2003 visit to the farm. Rick Bilozer, who ac­com­pa­nied his mother to that meet­ing, de­nies it.

“It was never even men­tioned,” he says.

The par­ties re­main in a dead­lock, with Im­pe­rial and the Biloz­ers dig­ging in their heels, and govern­ment largely watch­ing from the side­lines.

Com­pany spokesman Pius Rol­heizer says Im­pe­rial is will­ing to com­plete what­ever re­me­di­a­tion is nec­es­sary but first needs ac­cess to the land so more tests can be com­pleted.

The Biloz­ers are deny­ing that ac­cess be­cause they feel am­ple test­ing has al­ready been done, and they see the move as a stalling tac­tic. One con­sult­ing firm hired by the com­pany has sug­gested that re­me­di­at­ing just one small por­tion of the site could cost $1.5 mil­lion.

The three con­sult­ing firms pre­vi­ously en­gaged by the com­pany drilled 101 bore holes, ex­ca­vated 31 test pits and set up 18 mon­i­tor­ing wells while col­lect­ing soil and wa­ter sam­ples and iden­ti­fy­ing the ma­te­ri­als used to fill the five-acre site.

“We al­ready have enough re­ports to make your head swim,” Bilozer says. “They know what they put in there. Noth­ing has changed.

“They want to keep go­ing around in cir­cles.”

In April, while look­ing for help, the Biloz­ers met with the in­spec­tor from the for­mer Leduc Strath­cona Health Unit, who is­sued the clean-fill-only per­mit to Im­pe­rial 20 years ago. A month later, they re­ceived a re­ply from a se­nior man­ager at Al­berta Health Ser­vices, where the woman is now em­ployed.

“It is our po­si­tion that this mat­ter does not in­volve Al­berta Health Ser­vices,” the let­ter says.

Al­berta En­vi­ron­ment spokesman Trevor Gim­mel says the agency will not in­ter­vene be­cause Im­pe­rial Oil is mak­ing at­tempts to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion and there­fore re­mains in com­pli­ance with provin­cial reg­u­la­tions. Gim­mel says let­ters writ­ten to the com­pany in 2005, 2006 and 2009 di­rect­ing it to re­claim the dam­aged land un­der a pro­vi­sion of The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion and En­hance­ment Act were warn­ings, but did not con­sti­tute for­mal de­mands.

“No or­der has ever ex­isted,” Gim­mel says. “The com­pany has been and re­mains will­ing to do what­ever is nec­es­sary. But to do that it needs ac­cess, and the landowner is un­will­ing.”

Karl Za­jes, a lo­cal farmer and land-use ad­vo­cate who serves as pres­i­dent of the War­burg Pem­bina Sur­face Rights Group, has helped the Biloz­ers wade through hun­dreds of pages of en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ments and helped ar­range ap­point­ments with govern­ment of­fi­cials.

Stand­ing on their farm ear­lier this week, be­tween un­du­lat­ing golden fields of canola dot­ted with pump­jacks, Za­jes shakes his head.

“Govern­ment says we have the best reg­u­la­tions in the world, but what good are they if we don’t en­force them?”

In the last few weeks of her life back in 2004, Natala Bilozer re­peat­edly asked her son and daugh­ter-in-law to con­tinue her fight with Im­pe­rial Oil.

For that last month, Rick slept on a cot in his mother’s room at the Grey Nuns Hos­pi­tal in Ed­mon­ton.

“She said, ‘Rick, don’t you let them get away with this,’ and I promised I wouldn’t,” he says.

Im­pe­rial has of­fered to buy the farm from the Biloz­ers for $640,000 but they have re­fused.

An ap­praisal of the prop­erty in 2012 es­ti­mated its value at $1.5 mil­lion.

The com­pany has also of­fered to lease the five-acre site it con­tam­i­nated, but the Biloz­ers de­clined be­cause they fear if they lease the land it will never get re­me­di­ated.

“We promised her we would get to the bot­tom of it,” Barb Bilozer says.

“We promised we wouldn’t fall for a lot of BS. They de­stroyed some­thing and should be made to fix it.”

The Biloz­ers com­plain Im­pe­rial has failed to com­pen­sate the fam­ily for the dam­age done to the off-lease tract, but say their bat­tle is about more than money.

Pri­mar­ily, Rick Bilozer wants the prop­erty re­turned to its orig­i­nal state. The land has be­longed to his fam­ily for 96 years, and sits be­side the home­stead where his great­grand­fa­ther, Daniel, set­tled in 1896 af­ter com­ing from Ukraine.

Over the last 40-odd years, it has been sub­jected to fire and flood and a 5,000-litre pipe­line spill.

And even if he is no longer farm­ing him­self, the land is still his fam­ily’s legacy.

“When I was seven, I shov­elled grain out of a one-ton truck with my dad,” he says. “By the time I was 10, I could have got­ten a driver’s li­cence. I could drive any piece of farm equip­ment, even though I was so small I had to sit on a pil­low to reach the ped­als.

“I worked hard as a kid, but it made a good man out of me.”

Even af­ter they moved to Ed­mon­ton, Natala and Joe Bilozer would drive out to their farm on week­ends, work all day Satur­day and from early morn­ing to noon on Sun­day. In the af­ter­noon they would host a bar­be­cue for fam­ily and rel­a­tives.

“If my dad had any idea what was go­ing to be done here, he never would have a signed a con­tract,” Rick Bilozer says.

Af­ter lock­ing the chain that drapes across the drive­way that leads into his prop­erty, Bilozer stops and sur­veys his land.

When it rains, a sheen floats on top of the wa­ter in the ditches be­side the field, he says. Oil seeps out of the pores of some of the wood from his prop­erty when it is cut and split.

“At one point we were go­ing to build a house in there,” he says.

“We thought it was a per­fect spot.”

ED KAISER- ED­MON­TON JOUR­NAL

Barb and Rick Bilozer with some of the pa­per­work con­cern­ing their bat­tle with Im­pe­rial Oil over re­me­di­a­tion of their land. They have been fight­ing to have the fam­ily farm cleaned up af­ter it was con­tam­i­nated by Im­pe­rial Oil in the 1980s.

ED KAISER/ ED­MON­TON JOUR­NAL

Rick Bilozer has been fight­ing for years to have the fam­ily farm near Devon cleaned up af­ter it was con­tam­i­nated by Im­pe­rial Oil in the 1980s. The fam­ily has re­fused an of­fer to sell to Im­pe­rial Oil.

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