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Sour Gas: The Smell of Money

B.C.'s oil and gas boom emits a deadly poison. As government trims its watchdogs, labour and health activists cry alarm. A TYEE SPECIAL REPORT

Shefa Siegel 23 Mar
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Spring has come to the Peace River region, and signs of growth are everywhere. On the steppes of northeastern British Columbia, places with frontier names like Tumbler Ridge, Dawson Creek, and Fort St. John are enjoying a boom. The fuel is natural gas, and plenty of it.

But with the boom comes high risks to workers even as the government is cutting back on health and safety officers in the region. And anger is rising among residents who hate living close to wells they say are making them ill.

Since NAFTA, Canada has quietly become the largest exporter of oil and gas to the United States. Canadian exports now account for roughly 15 percent of natural gas and 9 percent of crude oil flowing into the U.S., and these figures are continuing to climb. Nowhere is the action hotter than in the Peace River region, more than 100 oil and gas companies are competing for profit.

In Tumbler Ridge, as in many places, municipal officials have auctioned every available lot for the garages and equipment dealers needed to service industry. Property values have already more than doubled. Once  roduction begins at least 1000 workers will be needed to operate the wells, drive the trucks, service the lines, haul water . . . and flare the stacks.

Call it the new gold rush. But if gold causes fever, natural gas makes an odour. At least half of the gas reserves here are sour. Sour gas is rich in sulphur and surfaces in a toxic compound with hydrogen, one that emits the unmistakable scent of foul eggs.

'Knockdown' power

Standard practice in the industry is to "dispose" of hydrogen sulphide by burning it on site rather than paying to pipe it to a refinery, have it separated, and find a market for it. (Flared hydrogen sulphide also becomes toxic sulphur dioxide, or SO2.)

When inhaled in doses of more than 100 parts-per-million hydrogen sulphide attacks the respiratory system, killing you in a matter of seconds.

If you are lucky, the concentration is only half that, and causes what oil and gas workers call a "knockdown," where unprotected well-operators stumble into leaks and instantly collapse from the toxicity.

At least two workers have died in the B.C. Peace region from sour gas in the last two years, and the Workers Compensation Board estimates there are 4 or 5 "known" knockdowns per year.

The real number of sour gas knockdowns may be higher because a heavy code of silence is respected within the industry, say activists. But even the official figures on knockdowns and deaths are "outrageous," says Mae Burrows, Director of the Labour-Environmental Alliance. "I don't know any other industry where that level of insult to workers is tolerated so openly." In fact, sour gas is deemed the most common cause of sudden death in the workplace by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Routine, lower-level exposure to sour gas can cause neurological damage (memory loss, headaches, dizziness), reproductive disorder (miscarriages, birth defects), and, depending on who you ask, cancer. The full extent of the danger posed by sour gas, especially its carcinogenicity, remains fuzzy to the scientific community - not because the science is in conflict but because it simply is not there. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, "Hydrogen Sulfide has not been classified for its ability to cause or not cause cancer." Similarly, the U.S. EPA concludes that data are inadequate for an assessment of the carcinogenic potential of hydrogen sulphide. "We take the threat of sour gas very seriously," says Jan Rowley, Shell Canada's Manager of Public Affairs. "There is no doubt hydrogen sulphide is a deadly poison. But when it get to low concentrations there are questions. So far there has not been anything that confirms the concerns of residents, and there are lots of studies which demonstrate that workers' exposure over 50 years failed to result in ill health effects."

Boom outrunning watchdogs

Despite the public health and labour concerns, the B.C. government's economic plan is moving full-steam-ahead. Canadian resource extraction is governed by 19th century mining laws that refuse landowners rights to anything below six-inches of Earth's surface. In short, the provincial government, not local residents, is the primary beneficiary of billions in royalties from deeply-buried natural gas deposits.

Revenues from oil and gas have eclipsed those from timber in B.C., after the number of wells in the province grew 39 percent in a decade, creating a five-billion dollar industry the conservative Liberal Party says it wants quadrupled by 2008.

Oversight for workers' safety and the environment hasn't kept pace. The ranks of enforcement officers working for the Ministry of Water, Air and Land Protection have been cut by 40 percent under the current government. The number of Workers Compensation Board officers for the Peace River

region is down from nine to six, and of those six three have been on stress leave. Another agency with major oversight responsibilities is the Oil and Gas Commission, an arm of the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Its budget remained flat this year despite the steep increase in drilling activity.

"Industry just does whatever it wants," says Stacey Lajeunesse, who is board director for the Peace Country Environmental Protection Association, a citizens group founded in 1994. "There's nobody out in the backcountry to watchdog this stuff."

From ExxonMobil to Talisman, Shell, and EnCana, the Peace now hosts the giants of oil and gas. With 10,000 gas wells already on-line, production is advancing north along the Alaska Highway to Fort Nelson and southwest toward Alberta, where wells share canola and barley fields with farmers who have little control over where and when new wells are drilled.

Wells a whiff away

It used to be that wells were sunk in the bush, away from populated areas. But the convenience of drilling next to people's homes - where access to roads, power, and water reduces start-up costs - has companies sinking wells so close to residences the noise of compressors and smell of flared gas are now part of ordinary life.

"The way the law is currently structured in British Columbia sour gas wells can be drilled within 100 metres of private homes," says Karen Campbell, staff lawyer for West Coast Environmental Law. "This is a real concern for residents, who have very little opportunity to participate in decisions about drilling on or next to their homes. Even the Oil and Gas Commission's own Advisory Committee has expressed concern about the lack of legal requirements with respect to the placement of sour gas wells."

The industry and B.C.'s government say new technologies make nearby wells safe for residents. Critics say people remain at risk of both long-term low-level and catastrophic exposure from leaks, explosions, and routine flaring.

On a recent fact-finding trip paid for by environmental groups, I spent a week in the Peace region. Families there described the terror of feeling their houses shaken by an explosion at the nearby well, grabbing their children from bed, and dashing to their trucks as the stink of sulphur enveloped them. Others spoke of the fear of carrying infants to term with a sour well operating in spitting distance of their homes, and the constant concern of what the poisons are doing to their children.

"I don't know what it's going to take for people to wake up to what's happening here," a local told me. "We're even scared to grow a garden because we don't want to eat food from our land. We don't have any idea what's in the soil."

One couple sought me out to discuss burns on their bodies suffered after what they believed was an unpublicized leak at a nearby well. I met a number of other families who claimed their lives are in ruin because of sour wells perched in view of their kitchen windows. I made notes on their health woes, their trouble getting physicians to take them seriously, and their feelings of abandonment. But none of these sources would agree to be identified by name.

In some cases, when potential whistleblowers edged towards going public with demands for compensation for health and property damage, companies were quick to offer cash settlements in exchange for signatures on non-disclosure agreements. Others feared becoming embroiled in legal battles. Or they worried the bad publicity would cause their property values to plummet, blocking their exit and angering neighbours.

As one frustrated resident told me, "Look, I want to talk to you, but I've been shouting about this for five years, and no good has come of it. I can't afford to pay a lawyer if it comes to that. I just want to sell my land and get my family out of here."

As a result, there is no way to assess how many knockdowns occur each year, how many residents are sick, or even how many people are killed from sour gas, says Karen Campbell: "The government's own compliance reviews are much less comprehensive than they used to be. This calls into question whether we can even track compliance with the oil and gas laws that do exist."

The next Weibo?

If history is any indication, public dissent will eventually boil over. Just across the border in Alberta, before landing in prison for two years, Wiebo Ludwig, his family, and small community of renegade fundamentalist Christians fought companies over their right to drill sour gas on his land. The spiraling tragedy found Wiebo sabotaging wells, two people dead, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police collaborating with oil companies to stage acts of terrorism on their own wells in hopes of framing Wiebo.

Largely because of the paperback publication of an award-winning book by journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, this story is only just beginning to circulate on the B.C. side of the Peace, where the Ludwigs operate a successful drywalling business. It is common to hear Wiebo praised by residents of Dawson Creek or Fort St. John. "He's not crazy like they made him out to be," a woman from Dawson Creek insisted. "Wiebo was framed by the police and the media to look like a lunatic."

Said another: "Our back has been pushed so far against the wall, I can see how Wiebo would do what he did. We've become a very submissive society where companies get to police themselves, and this kind of treatment is accepted. But there's gotta be more Ludwigs coming out of the woodwork."

Shefa Siegel is a freelance writer and research consultant to environmental and indigenous groups. He is also managing editor for the Vancouver Film School, and is currently working on a collection of stories about family, aging, and illness.  [Tyee]

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