Mar 30, 2011

Health Act Inquiry Into Threats Posed by Sour Gas A Step Closer?

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A local citizens initiative aimed at highlighting the health threats posed by sour gas wells in B.C.’s energy-rich Peace River region appears to be gaining momentum, but whether or not it will result in a public inquiry remains to be seen.

Last week, the Alaska Highway News reported that during her first installment of promised town hall meetings Premier Christy Clark pledged to a gathering in Fort St. John that her government would investigate the threats to public health and safety associated with sour gas developments.

Calls for an investigation have been growing, spearheaded by a local citizens group – the Peace Environment Safety Trustees Society – who are alarmed at the growing number of sour gas leaks, related deaths and injuries of gas industry workers, and a range of health care complaints by area residents.

If Clark’s commitment to the society (PESTS) is acted on, it promises to highlight a contradiction inherent in her stated policy objectives. On the one hand, Clark has staked out ground as a staunch defender of children and families, which presumably includes their general health and well-being. On the other, she has made it abundantly clear that she sees increased revenues from an expanded oil and gas industry as a cornerstone of her government’s fiscal plans.

In many areas that oil and gas companies currently operate in in B.C.’s Peace River region, sour gas is a frightening fact of life. As Vancouver Sun columnist Stephen Hume noted recently, hydrogen sulphide, the toxin in sour gas, is absolutely deadly. People exposed to gas leaks where the toxin is present at levels of just 250 parts per million have been known to die in minutes. In some northeast B.C. gas wells, hydrogen sulphide concentrations reach as high as 160,000 parts per million.

In a detailed brief submitted to the provincial government on behalf of PESTS and written by environmental lawyers Calvin Sandborn and Tim Thielmann, it is noted that over the past three decades, at least 34 workers in B.C. and Alberta have been killed in sour-gas related incidents and hundreds more disabled. Massive, uncontrolled releases of sour gas have occurred in B.C., but to date have not been near communities with large numbers of residents. The same could not be said for residents living near Gao Qiao, in Chonquing, China where, in 2003, a massive sour gas leak there forced the evacuation of 64,000 residents and killed 243 people in what became a 25-square-kilometre death zone.

In 2009, an uncontrolled release of sour gas near the Peace River community of Pouce Coupe spewed 30,000 cubic metres of toxic gas into the night air. The estimated eight-hour gas leak forced the evacuation of 18 residents, killed a horse and resulted in at least one emergency hospitalization. The leak occurred at an EnCana Corporation well site. Former EnCana chairman, Gwyn Morgan, is a senior advisor to Clark.

Clark did not mention such events during her town hall meeting in Fort St. John. Instead, she spent much of her time extolling the virtues of expanded oil and gas developments in northeastern B.C., noting at one point that revenues generated by the region’s energy industry provided roughly $1.3 billion of wealth to provincial coffers each year. An amount, she said, that allowed health care professionals primarily in the south of the province to perform 96,000 knee replacement surgeries.

“One of the things that happens when you’re down South is you find a lot of people who are against everything. They’re against hunting, forestry, mining, oil and gas, you name it,” Clark said. “People need to remember that if you’re against everything, eventually you don’t have the money left to be able to pay for the things that are important to us.

“I want to make sure that everybody in British Columbia understands what an important role the North plays in making sure that we’re able to have all the things we want as a province.”

Clark was later reminded, however, that there is a dark side to gas developments in the region and that it is people living in the region that are most directly affected.

“We appreciate the economic activity the [oil and gas] industry has brought to the area, but there has never been an assessment of the cumulative health impacts it’s having on people and the environment,” PESTS member, Lois Hill, said.

Letters of support for the PESTS-led initiative have flowed in from numerous quarters, including from local health officials, elected members of the regional district government, First Nations and even from Blair Lekstrom, local  MLA and Minister for Transportation and Infrastructure.

In response to Hill’s comments, provincial Health Minister Mike de Jong, who attended the town hall meeting, replied that a panel of experts drawn from the University of Northern B.C. and elsewhere should be called upon to study the impacts of sour gas developments on air, water and soil in the Peace River region. De Jong used words like legitimate, fair and reasonable to characterize the broadening call for an examination into the human health threats posed by sour gas.

What remains to be answered is just what form the Clark government’s commitment will take, and whether or not the natural gas industry’s controversial and rapidly expanding use of hydraulic fracturing or fracking operations will form part of any future inquiry.

Fracking involves the pressure-pumping of immense amounts of water, fine-grained sand and chemicals below the earth’s surface to stimulate gas production. The controversial technique was found to be a contributing factor to the Pouce Coupe gas leak and has been linked to at least 18 incidents involving unwanted “communications” between gas wells – meaning that fracking activities at one gas well have caused contamination corridors to open to another well that may be 700 metres or more away. Such unwanted events have resulted in corrosive frack sand from one well being blown hundreds of metres into another, sand that in high enough concentrations can lead to well failures and uncontrolled gas leaks.

PESTS and legal experts acting on its behalf want a formal inquiry called under the provincial Health Act – a process that would result in pubic meetings and the calling of witnesses. It remains to be seen, however, whether Clark’s commitment to the health and well-being of children and families will result in such a process or something less formal and less likely to shine as bright a spotlight on a dark side of the gas industry.

“While minister Lekstrom has assured us that money has been set aside for a permanent air-monitoring program, that program is going to be led by the energy industry regulator, the Oil and Gas Commission,” Hill says. “We have not been informed officially of any plans for a broader inquiry. Air monitoring is just one component of what we’re looking for. What we want is an empowered Ministry of Health, to set standards, monitor compliance and investigate health impacts associated with this industry. And before that happens, we think we need a full, public inquiry.”

 

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