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Residents worry oil and gas industry is making them sick, finds BC report

People in northeastern British Columbia are concerned development of the oil and gas industry is making them sick, says a report the provincial government commissioned.

"Although respondents recognize the contribution of oil and gas activity as a significant economic generator for Northeastern BC, many attributed personal health problems — such as asthma and bronchitis, cancer, stress and sleep deprivation — directly to exposure to oil and gas operations," said Identifying Health Concerns, the 63-page report the Fraser Basin Council prepared for B.C. as the first of three phases of a human health risk assessment.

"Others believe their health is being compromised by exposure to hazards through a natural pathway, such as air, water or food," it said. "Examples include exposure to hydrogen sulphide, contaminated water and diesel dust, and ingestion of adversely affected livestock and/or wildlife."

Some of the 300 respondents who shared their views for the report raised concerns about well-site accidents, pipeline leaks, spills, noise and light pollution. Others worried about how the industry affects ecosystems and "the effect a contaminated ecosystem would have on their health and the health of their families."

Respondents identified many concerns, but the main one was "uncertainty and not being fully informed of the nature and extent of possible long‐term health effects on individuals and communities within close proximity of oil and gas operations," the report said.

There was strong support for moving ahead with phase two of the assessment quickly and keeping the process open to the public and engaged, it said.

The second phase of the assessment is a "comprehensive scientific review of evidence" based on the phase one findings. A government press release said the request for proposals for phase two will go out this month, with the work expected to be completed by early 2014.

Phase three is the reporting of those findings to the provinces, stakeholders and the public.

The phase one report noted that the health ministry launched the Human Health Risk Assessment in response to concerns raised by the public, the Northern Health Authority, First Nations, environmental groups, local governments and non‐government organizations.

When the Fraser Basin Council won the $100,000 contract in January, independent Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson said people in the north wanted a full public inquiry that would look at the industry's impacts and the first phase of the government's assessment was "a bit of a smokescreen and an avoidance strategy."

Update, 5:40 p.m.: Now that the report is out, it's unclear why the government delayed releasing it for two and a half months, Simpson said today. "It's a matter now of the government treating it with the seriousness it deserves."

The government has said it wants to ramp up the industry, but right now there's a lull while prices are low, Simpson added. "This is an ideal opportunity to start putting some safeguards and regulations in place."

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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