A local environmental advocacy group has hired a lawyer to analyze current and forthcoming legal structures that surround health and safety management in natural gas development.
The Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society’s [PESTS] aim is to increase awareness of environmental, health and safety concerns related to industry development and to ultimately bring about law reform.
Their mission began after the Nov. 22, 2009 gas leak near Pouce Coupe, which was initially detected by residents and the RCMP.
PESTS director Lois Hill said the Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) and the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources did a good job of technical analysis of the incident that forced EnCana to change some of its practices, but that there were huge gaps in the investigation.
“The OGC and the ministry both said that they have neither the expertise nor the mandate to investigate health issues,” she said. “There was injury to health. There was injury to livestock and that was never followed up.”
Both the Northern Health Authority (NHA) and the Peace River Regional District wrote letters in support of PESTS asking the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources to take full responsibility for the health and safety and risks imposed by this industry, said Hill.
One request PESTS is asking oil and gas companies for is disclosure of the dangers to landowners when companies want to put a drill pad down.
“We ask that companies be required to disclose the risk and hazard of sour gas, the high pressure, of all the things that might happen, of all the things that shouldn’t happen, that did happen south of Pouce [Coupe],” said Hill noting that landowners have to disclose everything when selling property.
But the disclosure is only the first step, she said.
PESTS wants industry to set a safety standard for residents who have the scar of industry on their property.
“Oil and gas industry employees have a whole raft of qualifications, training and safety equipment they have to carry, and we as residents are living within 100 metres from exactly the same thing with no training, no equipment and no air monitoring warning systems.
“We’re looking for regulations that will impose a requirement to install safety equipment and warning systems… for residents.”
Hill said PESTS is not against industry. The group acknowledges that oil and gas has great economic benefits.
“We’re not against any of that. We just want to be safe,” she said.
Research led the group to the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) at the University of Victoria.
“They agreed to provide a law student so that we could explore the legal ramifications under the public health act for example,” said Hill.
After further discussion, PESTS decided it had a project worthy of hiring a lawyer to “investigate and be able to give legal advice on the acts that we have in place, and any legislation that maybe should be changed to protect us as residents in this highly risky and hazardous development,” Hill said.
With funding from the environmental dispute resolution fund administered by West Coast Environmental Law in Vancouver, PESTS is now represented by lawyer Tim Thielmann of Devlin Gailus based in Victoria.
PESTS will pay for 10 per cent of legal fees, while the funding covers the rest.
“He’s [Thielmann] examining the current legislation under which incidents have occurred, like the gas leaks outside of Pouce [Coupe] and other things that have happened, as well as the upcoming legislation to see where the gaps are. Where it can be tightened up in order to protect residents and people working in the field, everyone who’s around it,” said Hill.
In addition, the ELC student is researching how other jurisdictions have made industry safer to see if B.C. can apply the same practices, she said.
“There’s absolutely no way that we intend to try to shut down progress, industry,” stated Hill. “We want to work collaboratively to make this a safe endeavour for all.”
Representatives from EnCana were contacted, but were unable to comment by press time.