Stephen Hume: B.C. sour gas rules leave school kids in danger

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More than 1,900 children at nine schools in British Columbia’s northeast are at risk from toxic sour gas tapped by wells either already drilled or planned for the province’s liquefied natural gas strategy, warns the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre.

The warning is part of a blunt report prepared with the Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society and set to be delivered to Premier Christy Clark Thursday morning.

By way of context, it points out that in a single recent five-year span there were 73 documented sour gas leaks in B.C. and that 34 workers have died as a result of sour gas exposure since 1983.

“If LNG exports proceed as planned, more than 6,000 new gas wells could be needed in the northeast. Many of these wells contain potentially lethal volumes of sour gas and other harmful pollutants, and many of them are being installed in close proximity to elementary schools,” the study says.

“Plans for a new ‘world-class’ LNG industry will be sorely lacking if they fail to include a ‘world-class’ safety strategy for children surrounded by natural gas wells and pipelines. As the attached report documents, B.C.’s current safety rules are far from ‘world class’,” it notes.

The report urges the province give high priority to:

Extending minimum setbacks from schools of wells, pipelines and other natural gas infrastructure.

Improving emergency response plans for schools near gas wells and pipelines.

Tightening requirements for gas leak detection and air quality monitoring.

Improving regulations to reduce flaring and other releases of natural gas.

Hydrogen sulphide gas, once used as a chemical weapon during the First World War, can be fatal in prolonged doses as small as 100 parts per million. When exposed to concentrations of 800 parts per million, it kills within five minutes.

But one sour gas leak at Pouce Coupe in 2009 continued unabated for 27 minutes before an automatic emergency shut-off valve activated itself, the report says. It then took two more hours to isolate and seal the leak.

In another incident in 2008, the report says, an elementary school was forced to lock down when a terrorist’s bomb caused a sour gas leak. The school’s emergency response plan proved deeply flawed.

First, teachers and staff were expected to seal cracks around windows and doors with duct tape. This proved so impractical it was abandoned.

Second, the school was expected to shut down all furnaces and to ensure outside air dampers were closed since natural gas is explosive as well as toxic. But two furnaces continued to operate including the building’s primary air intake.

At yet another school, a natural gas leak at a wellhead only 500 metres from the school filled the building with noxious fumes in 2004. Fortunately, the gas wasn’t sour and nobody was injured. However, since then, whenever drilling takes place, school buses are parked on the grounds in case emergency evacuation is necessary.

Law student Jacqui McMorran, lawyer Tim Thielmann and lawyer Calvin Sandborn, director of the Environmental Law Centre, used information from DataBC and the mapping functions of Google Earth to plot active, suspended and abandoned wells (all can leak gas) in relation to schools in districts 59 and 60 around Dawson Creek and Fort St. John.

The result is a stunning image that shows schools across the Peace River district surrounded by thousands of gas wells, proposed wells and gas pipelines, some less than 250 metres from school buildings, leaving small margins for error in potential emergencies.

The report notes that schools are in locations that place children, teachers and staff at risk in the event of a leak, wellhead blowout or pipeline rupture that could send either poisonous sulphur dioxide or the more lethal hydrogen sulphide spewing into the atmosphere.

In 1973, more than 360 square kilometres of central Alberta had to be evacuated when a dormant sour gas well near New Norway suddenly blew out 10 years after being capped. And in 2013, 50 homes had to be evacuated from Turner Valley near Calgary when flooding ruptured a sour gas pipeline.


Meanwhile, the report says medical research shows younger children — students at six of the schools are ages five to 13 — are more vulnerable to pollutants released by leaks and flaring of natural gas because of their smaller body size and active outdoor lifestyles.

A Michigan Department of Community Health study found children risk exposure to greater concentrations of hydrogen sulphide than adults simply because the gas is denser than air and concentrates closer to ground level.

“Children, being shorter than adults, breathe vapours found closer to the ground, and thus may breathe greater amounts of hydrogen sulphide and receive a larger dose per unit of body weight,” the report says.

And yet more research, the report says, found that lethal exposures to hydrogen sulphide can occur as far as 2,000 metres from the source.

“Note that the B.C. schools above all fall within the ‘hazard zone’ identified in this University of California study,” it says.

It cites an expert witness called by the Natural Resources Defense Council to discuss the proposed setback for natural gas development in Colorado.

The expert’s review of medical research found that schools within 1,000 metres of a pollution source recorded higher levels of respiratory problems in children; children in schools within 2,000 metres showed a correlation between air pollution levels and poor school performance; and children in schools within 5,000 metres of an air pollution source showed DNA damage relative to proximity to the source.

The report says that under B.C.’s current rules, oil and gas wells can be drilled a close as 100 metres from public facilities — including schools — and that wells with sour gas potential are treated no differently than other wells. There are no legislated minimum setbacks from schools or other public buildings for oil or gas facilities like pumping stations. There’s no minimum setback for pipelines.

Setbacks of 1,500 metres from a school’s property line should be the minimum standard for pipelines, wells or facilities dealing with hydrogen sulphide, the UVic report says. And a comprehensive review of standards is necessary considering scientific and health research about the acute and chronic effects of exposure to sour gas and other pollutants.

The report calls for new regulations governing emergency response planning, the repeal of legislation that lets Oil and Gas Commission officials exempt companies from leak detection and other safety measures, and regulatory requirement for low level hydrogen sulphide monitoring networks as a precondition to development permits.

Finally, it says, regulations governing the flaring of natural gas should be tightened with a goal of lowering emissions and, if possible, eliminating flaring. Otherwise, there should be requirements to notify all schools within emergency planning zones 24 hours before flaring occurs.

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