Farmers fight big oil
Twenty years after a fire and a burst pipeline contaminated the land, it’s still a mess.
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.”