BOMB: Climate of fear grips gas country
By Hanneke Brooymans
Farmers remain on edge 11 months into enCana bombings in northeastern B.C.
It is early evening in Tomslake and the rural roads are eerily quiet.
This corner of northeastern British Columbia is no longer the place to go for an idle drive, even on one of summer's last beautiful days. As tension ratchets up around the 11-month search for the EnCana bomber, chances are a watchful, nervous neighbour will call the RCMP.
"You don't just hop in your truck and drive around anymore," says one local farmer. He hasn't driven certain roads for months now, because he doesn't want people second-guessing why he is there. Nevertheless, he feels strongly enough about the burgeoning gas development to take a reporter and photographer on a short tour to point out the many drilling rigs, flares and compressor stations in his area.
The farmer is too nervous to have his name published, for fear of becoming the target of RCMP interrogations, harassment and phone tapping. This is what happens to anyone who openly criticizes the oilpatch in the area, he says, a view echoed by others in the area.
The wish to avoid police attention has made residents reluctant to talk, even to each other, about the bomber or development issues for fear their views might be misconstrued.
At the Dawson Creek RCMP detachment, Staff Sgt. Stephen Grant is conscious of those concerns, but he won't comment further on the chilling effect the incidents and the resulting investigation are having on the community.
The RCMP, along with the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, have thrown considerable resources at the hunt for the perpetrator-- or perpetrators--of the six explosions on EnCana pipelines.
Grant says they've had more than 250 staff working on the case over the last 11 months, as many as 40 or 50 at certain points in time. About 1,000 interviews have been conducted, he adds.
Last week, the Dawson Creek detachment set up a new rural unit in Tomslake, 28 kilometres to the south. Part of the mandate of the four officers in the new unit is to ease the security fears of people in the area.
But residents say they won't relax until the bomber is caught.
Not even the bomber's most recent letter--promising a three-month vacation from attacks to give EnCana time to announce a withdrawal from the area--has provided any relief.
In the mid-July letter, the bomber said the reprieve was to "give the people here room during these three months to talk about these problems unmolested by any further interrogations and/or investigations so that they can speak their minds without reprisal."
As it turns out, the opposite is happening.
Many people approached by The Journal declined to say anything at all about development in the area and about the bomber. Others would only speak on the condition of anonymity. Only a few were unbowed by the climate of suspicion and fear.
"A lot of people like to stay off the topic," acknowledges Renate Green, who lives on a farm gifted to her by her father.
But Renate and her husband Ed speak frankly about the issues they've had with the rapid pace of development all around them. They've kept development off their own land, but that didn't stop the oil companies from planting wells in the land all around them.
An entourage of service trucks followed. They were, Ed said, "like a train, steady, one after another, one going in, another going out."
The trucks ran early. They ran late. For a while, both Ed and Renate were severely sleep deprived.
Fine particles of dirt were kicked up over the landscape in their wake. "At one point, I could see our house enveloped in a cloud of dust."
More worrisome were the five episodes of "funny odours" in the air. The first time, Ed felt so nauseous he had to drive away from his home. He complained about the sour gas exposures, just as he reported all their other concerns to the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.
"I probably have a complaints sheet there a mile long," Ed said.
The industry improved its operations after all his "squawking," he said.
Others in the area agree that both EnCana and Murphy Oil, by far the two biggest operators, are responsive to residents' concerns.
Crystal Lardner points to the stupendous view that rolls down from a hilltop over a hay field and out over woodlots to the next ridge, about four kilometres away. Her sister, who owns the land, managed to convince the company not to build a road through the middle of the field and the woodlot. Instead, the road was built out of view, connecting to the well pad built in the corner of a section.
Though Lardner doesn't like the damage the gas companies' fleets do to the local roads and she doesn't welcome the Olympic-sized flames that flare up on the skyline --sometimes as many as five at a time--she understands how it has come to be.
Says Lardner: "If farmers were paid adequately for their cattle and hay, they wouldn't have to say OK to oil and gas."
Illustrating the point, Tony Schwertner Sr. points to the compressor station built about 800 metres downhill from the family home. It earns more money for him than he and his sons can make off farming.
In fact, the three of them make their money primarily in Fort Mc-Murray's construction trade. And though Schwertner said he misses the "peaceful place" the area was before development ramped up, now that it's here and not going away, he'd welcome more development on his land.
And then there are the Mortensens. She is 76, he is 80, and their farmhouse is encircled by wells and compressor stations as little as 500 metres away. They are another example of the pragmatism forced onto farmers in the area.
"If we wouldn't have let them on our land, they would have gone on our neighbour's land," says Regina.
It's a simple math: all the inconvenience and none of the money.
This spring, when Alf smelled "a stink in the air" from inside the house in the middle of the night, he called the Oil and Gas Commission right away. The commission and En-Cana were out immediately.
The commission can see that the growth in the area means they have to increase their local presence, said spokesman Steve Simons. They have an office ready and equipped in Dawson Creek, although staffing it has taken longer than originally expected, due to the recession and budget cuts. Still, a simple phone call to a number in Fort St. John will get someone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.
The commission holds community meetings in the area and is doing a better job of educating the public that they can come to them with concerns, he added.
As for EnCana, it has posted a$1-million reward for information that leads to the arrest of the bomber, and there is certainly no talk of it leaving. The company has about 200 wells in the area now, as well as gathering lines, collection pipelines and compressor stations.
"We plan to continue to develop the resource there in a long-term manner on an ongoing basis, drilling a number of wells each year," says company spokesman Alan Boras.
Any time there is development and the need to share a land base, there will be varying viewpoints on the best way to do that, Boras says. For the most part, EnCana has found common ground with those in the area.
For example, he says, the company has about 200 surface lease agreements in the Dawson Creek area and only two went to an arbitration board.
But the wary farmer, the one who doesn't want to be named, says most people have no faith in the arbitration board and think it's a waste of time. He says a proper, independent assessment of all the risks involved in expanding industry in the area should have been done before expansion got going.
He worries about the flares, as do many area residents, and wants to know in more detail what chemicals they're releasing, and in what volumes. What, he wonders, are the implications for the health of residents in the area?
He says that it's not that he is against industry. He just wants it done properly.
But in the hamlet of Tomslake, where the bombings have temporarily stopped, but the fear and paranoia still run high, that's a discussion that is just not happening anymore.
"If you have any concerns," he says, "you're automatically anti-industry. There is no middle ground for thoughtful improvement of the way this development is occurring."
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton JournalPosted by Arthur Caldicott on 07 Sep 2009