BOMB: Land of suspicion
Police say a terrorist is blowing up a B.C. gas pipeline. Not all the locals agree
There is anger in the Peace, and suspicion. Someone is making homemade bombs, planting them beside natural gas wells and pipelines. Setting them off. Scaring families, exposing them to harm.
A terrorist is in their midst, say police. Neighbours wonder about one another. Since October, six explosions have rocked the rolling green foothills of northeastern British Columbia. There have been two this month. Whoever is responsible is edging closer to Pouce Coupe, a rural village 10 kilometres south of Dawson Creek.
All of the targets are owned by EnCana Corp. Like many other oil and gas companies tapping into gas fields in B. C.'s Peace River region, EnCana is in the business of sucking gas from the ground.
It is among the industry's dominant players; here in the Peace, it is the most visible. The EnCana logo seems ubiquitous. "It's the biggest bear in the barn, that's for sure," says Lyman Clark, Mayor of Pouce Coupe.
The Mayor is an unabashed EnCana booster. He speaks glowingly of the Calgary-based company, its community spirit, its willingness to sprinkle cash around his village when it's needed.
That new wheelchair ramp attached to the community centre? Built and installed by EnCana. The new school? Construction funded, in part, by EnCana.
But there are plenty of folk who have issues with the company. "It's assumed that because it's big, EnCana is out to screw everybody," says the Mayor.
Among other things, En-Cana is accused of being aggressive and arrogant in its dealings with locals, especially in negotiating right of entry to their land.
EnCana acquires subsurface mineral rights from the province, but must buy surface access separately. Often, that means dealing with farmers and ranchers who may want nothing to do with the gas business, or who feel they are being low-balled by the company.
This is rich, productive country, on the edge of a fertile plain that stretches far into Alberta. The land here supports woodlots, wheat and canola fields, and livestock.
But agriculture is giving way to industry. Specifically, the oil and gas business. The old way of life is eroding, people complain. Tim and Linda Ewert have been farming near Pouce Coupe since 1974. The couple and their children have grave concerns about the gas industry that, they said, arrived in the area about eight years ago, and came on "like a tidal wave."
Like everyone else in the area, they soon learned what escaped gas can do.
Commercial natural gas is either sweet or sour; most reservoirs found deep underground contain both. Sour gas contains hydrogen sulphide, which is lethal. Even a small amount escaped into the environment can potentially kill, or cause damage to animal and plant tissue.
The Ewerts and some of their neighbours claim to have suffered from accidental leaks; these are rare, but they do happen. Symptoms in humans include headaches, respiratory problems, loss of balance, even loss of consciousness.
The Ewerts digested whatever information they could find; inevitably, their research led them to Wiebo Ludwig, the fire-breathing Alberta preacher and farmer who led a personal crusade against a number of oil and gas companies. He alleged their operations were poisoning his family and his farmland.
In 2001, Mr. Ludwig was convicted of bombing and vandalizing oil and gas installations near his family farm in Hythe, Alta., which is less than an hour's drive east of Pouce Coupe. He spent more than a year in prison before being released on parole.
The Ewerts have since paid visits to the Ludwig farm.
"We heard people say he is an absolute lunatic," says Mr. Ewert. "But we cast around and we found that there was something to what he was saying about the gas industry. So we have some sympathy for him."
And while they say they don't condone violence or acts of terror, the Ewerts have some sympathy for the bomber in their midst.
This, even though the last two explosions occurred nearby. The July 1 bombing took out part of a wellhead. EnCana crews were still repairing the damage on July 4 when another bomb exploded, this one at a pipeline.
Mr. Ewert and his family saw a plume of smoke, and called the local EnCana office. They say that a company employee conceded that some sour gas had escaped. While the leak was quickly contained, thanks to automated controls and shutoff valves, it caused widespread alarm.
Yet the Ewerts are glad for the resulting publicity the bombing caused. "We don't feel any more threatened by the bomber than we do the industry. If anything, we feel more a threat from the industry," says Mr. Ewert. "In fact, I think the bomber has done quite a service to the community."
"I think he's made a lot of people stop and go, 'Oh, maybe there is a problem,' " his wife, Linda, says.
EnCana has a regional office in Dawson Creek, and about 1,600 gas installations scattered about the region. Most are set deep in the pine forests or in the bush. These include exploration and drilling sites, wells, compression and processing plants, and buried pipelines.
Plain-clothed officers and private security guards now move around some of these locations, hoping to catch sight of the bomber. Surveillance cameras are fixed along fence lines.
Despite their best efforts, hundreds of officers on the ground and special investigation units flown in from Vancouver, Alberta, and Ottawa haven't been able to nab the perpetrator.
An RCMP spokesman says local residents are being less than forthcoming. A $500,000 reward offered by EnCana for information leading to the bomber's arrest and prosecution has not been claimed.
Some say the RCMP has gone overboard.
Dennis MacLellan says he's "a person of interest" to po-lice. He has a longstanding beef with EnCana, and he's not been afraid to talk about it.
The dispute relates to his land, a tree farm near Pouce Coupe. EnCana wants access to it, he says, so that it can develop a lease.
"I'd prefer they didn't come onto the property," says Mr. MacLellan. EnCana has offered him some money, but it's not nearly enough. He wants $100,000.
The RCMP has him under surveillance, he says. There are cameras outside his apartment building in Dawson Creek. Investigators approached him inside a local restaurant. Uninvited, they sat down at his table. The men got into a shouting match; tall and burly, Mr. MacLellan isn't one to back down.
"They called me a terrorist," he says. Now his 72-year-old mother is worried; she already has a heart condition.
No one, it seems, escapes the Mounties' notice. "I've got one [village] councillor here who was stopped three times by police inside of three miles," say Lyman Clark. "Each time they were like, 'Whatcha doing here, boy?' "
RCMP Staff Sergeant Stephen Grant heads the region's 27-member detachment in Dawson Creek. He refuses to discuss the active investigation. However, he agrees that it has grown, and that it is logical to assume people have been interviewed. Police have been in touch with Wiebo Ludwig, for example.
Mayor Clark says he thinks the bomber is likely a local person. He points to a map. The Peace River region is vast and mostly wild, he says. A stranger would have trouble navigating it. "It's a jungle," says the Mayor. "A big-city person would get eaten by a bear before he could plant a bomb."
It could be "a demented EnCana employee," he says. "Someone with a really bad taste in his mouth."
Or perhaps a local eccentric. Pouce Coupe has more than a few, says the Mayor. "It could be one of our local rustics, a recluse. People we call bush bunnies. Someone living in an old beat-up camper trailer who dumps his refuse down a ravine. Someone who has been told by EnCana to shove off. Some vengeful warrior type."
The Mayor says it's only a matter of time before the bomber's identity is revealed.
"It's a strange mind we're dealing with. I know plenty of people who would like to find him in action," he says. "Hunters, trappers."
Does he mean people with firearms?
Oct. 11, 2008 First blast occurred in a remote location 50 km east of Dawson Creek.
Oct. 16 East of Dawson Creek, about half a kilometre from Alberta border. Explosion caused a pipeline to leak some gas.
Oct. 30 Third explosion occurred 12 km northwest of Tomslake. The blast hit a wellhead that leaked.
Jan. 4, 2009 Fourth explosion near Tomslake partly destroyed a metering shed.
July 1 Damage done to a wellhead in fifth explosion that occurred near Pouce Coupe, B. C., about 8 km south of Dawson Creek.
July 4 Sixth explosion occurred within a kilometre of staff working to fix the wellhead damaged on July 1. The explosion caused a gas leak. RCMP said the leak didn't harm the public, workers or environment.