Kept in Dark by BC's Oil and Gas Commission

Can public count on being put first? Consider the mystery of a small spill last summer.

By Ben Parfitt 7 Mar 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and recent author of Fracture Lines: Will Canada's Water Be Protected in the Rush to Develop Shale Gas? -- a report for The Program on Water Issues at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

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Whatever burst from pipe killed at least one cow.

When the pipeline broke, Friedrich wrote, "approximately 20 cubic metres of produced water spilled onto private lands and the pipeline was shut in. Permit holders are required by law to contain and eliminate spills and remediate any land or body of water affected by the spillage."

The OGC felt the spill was serious enough that it issued a directive to Orefyn. General Order 2011-20 was issued on Sept. 29, six weeks or so after the pipeline spill, and was signed by Lance Ollenberger, the OGC's deputy commissioner of operations engineering. The order directed Orefyn to clean up the site where the cattle had been killed or sickened and to repair the pipeline. Since that time, undisclosed amounts of contaminated soil have apparently been hauled away from the property.

As for the pipeline itself, Friedrich reports that it is "inactive." But the OGC remains firm that it will not release any written materials relating to the incident, including the order.

"Unfortunately, we are not able to release any records pertaining to this order at this time. Enforcement actions are still pending, therefore, according to Section 15 of the Freedom of Information Act, information on this order cannot be released until all items have been resolved and the order is closed."

All of which is rather curious. When a truck carrying gasoline tipped over last April on the Island Highway outside of Victoria and disgorged its contents onto the road and subsequently into the adjacent Goldstream River, provincial Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Transportation officials had no qualms about speaking to the media and about disclosing what enforcement actions they were taking and that they contemplated. It mattered not one iota that the investigation was then only in its infancy.

The big difference between the Goldstream event and that outside of Fort St. John is that the former occurred on the doorstep of the provincial capital, disrupted traffic on a busy stretch of road and could not have failed to come to the public's attention, while the Orefyn pipeline spill occurred in a region of the province that is larger than all but 14 of the U.S. states south of the 49th parallel, and with a sparse population of just 60,000 or so.

But this hardly justifies withholding information. Especially in a region of the province where oil and hazardous goods spills are distressingly common and where there is good reason to believe that there is a heightened risk of more pipeline breaks and more spills in the years ahead given the intense ramp-up in natural gas industry water-use now underway.

Misplaced loyalty?

In 2009, the Ministry of Environment's Environmental Emergencies Program released what it called an "annual report," covering spills in various regions of the province. Due to budgetary restraints it was the first such report released in several years. There has been no such report in the two years since. In it, the ministry noted that there were a total of 587 spills in the Fort St. John region during 2008. In just the first quarter of 2009, the ministry reported, 191 spills were recorded, a 28 per cent increase over the year before. The compilation of regional statistics ended by noting that a further "30 reports came in during (the) first 20 days of April 2009, alone."

Of note, the 2009 spills report predates the significant upsurge in fracking operations that now characterize gas well developments in northeast B.C. Such operations have already set global gas industry records for water usage and are certain to herald an increase in the volumes of toxic wastewater that must be moved either by truck and/or pipeline to injection wells for disposal.

All of which is of note when considering the question of whose interests -- those of the general public, or of the oil and gas industry -- are served when the regulator withholds information on a small, but nonetheless deadly spill. More than six months after the spill occurred, an allegedly ongoing investigation prevents the Oil and Gas Commission from disclosing further details about what happened that day and in the days after. With regard to this incident, at least, it appears that the interests of the OGC's industry clients take precedence over that of the public.

With more toxic waste spills a certainty in the months and years ahead, such loyalty does not inspire confidence.

[Tags: Energy, Politics, Labour + Industry.]  [Tyee]

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