Not so sleepy small town buzzing with energy

Deep in the Peace River Valley of Northeast British Columbia, not far from the bustling oil and gas industry cities of Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, there is a picturesque little hamlet known as the Land of Dinosaurs and Dams, a moniker that only alludes to the energy humming just below its quiet surface.

That community is Hudson's Hope.

It is perhaps best known for the ancient fossils on display at the Hudson's Hope Museum and the rushing waters of the Peace River that inspired the construction of the Peace Canyon Dam and the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, the energy infrastructure that has given the village its reputation as a BC Hydro town.

However, that isn't really the case anymore.

"Everybody used to call us that sleepy little town in the valley," said Mayor Karen Anderson, taking a break from her cooking duties during the community pancake breakfast at the Bullhead Mountain Curling Club.

"And it was," she continued. "I mean, our housing starts were virtually nil over the years. We never had any multiple family dwellings other than the two row houses that were built here in the sixties - early sixties - for the construction of the dam. But one of them was still owned by BC Hydro. So, it was just [for] their employees only.

"Now, we're looking at more of a growth and a rebirth out here."

Anderson noted that the growth is obvious even just when driving through town.

Hudson's Hope now has the first apartment building in its long history. One new hotel is under construction, while another is already up and running. The first day of Local Government Awareness Week also coincided with the grand opening of their new water treatment plant.

The facility - which had actually been online for ten days prior to the official opening - replaces the old water treatment system that had been in use for about fifty years. It includes a switch from chlorine gas to sodium hypochlorite and a combination of two sand filters, a coarse filter and a fine filter that actually uses more effective crushed ceramic instead of real sand. A coagulation process will also be used to remove solid particles from the water at times when the Peace River - the water source for Hudson's Hope - has higher than normal turbidity, particularly during summer rainstorms.

The total cost of the project was $1.46 million and the Province contributed $973,333 in the form of a grant, while the remainder was funded by capital money that Hudson's Hope had in reserve.

"The need for that plant was identified probably ten years ago or more," said Anderson. "And we went through a couple of changes in staff. So, it would just about get to fruition, and then we had a change in staff. And then [there] was also the problem of ... what was the best way to go."

The district had first considered a membrane water treatment plant, but the cost was too high.

It was decided that a new water treatment facility was necessary when the discovery of trace amounts of harmful contaminants in the water sparked fears of repeating the tragic events following the contamination of the water supply in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000.

"And so it was really a health issue [that] was the biggest thing," said Anderson, adding that the existing facility was "very outdated."

Peace River North MLA Pat Pimm described the old system as a "disaster" when he addressed the district council and the handful of Hudson's Hope residents who attended the ribbon cutting.

"[Clean water is] the right of every community," he said.

The new plant is located near the corner of Dudley Drive and Kyllo Street, which is a residential area of the community. Citizens had expressed a desire that the facility blend in with those surroundings. Consequently, the system is enclosed in a fairly typical house-style building and the lawn will be landscaped with new grass and flowers.

However, if BC Hydro's Site C hydroelectric project is approved, the plant will have to be relocated.

"I'm pretty excited that it's finally online," said Anderson.

"You get a sense of accomplishment that we've done something for the community."

It was also a necessary addition to the town considering the anticipated growth.

Not surprisingly, natural resource industry activity is spurring that growth in Hudson's Hope, but what may be a surprise is that BC Hydro is no longer leading the way.

The sectors that are now becoming the big drivers are the oil and gas, and mining industries.

A pair of mining operations have been showing considerable interest in local resources over the past few years, including the Canadian branch of Chinese company Kailuan Dehua.

"They're just on the verge of looking at their bulk permitting sample," said Anderson. "So, if that bulk permitting sample gets approved, and we're just waiting any day for that, that will bring in, right away, about forty-some employees, just to do that bulk sampling.

"That's 100,000 tonnes of coal that will come out for a bulk sampling."

Anderson recently received word that another mining company, Cardero, is currently moving forward on the environmental assessment for their project.

"Do we sit and wait for them to say [they're] moving into our community?" said Anderson.

"We have to be proactive, get out there, and do some of this building so that we're ready for them when they come."

Presently, the population of Hudson's Hope is just over 1000 people, but Anderson said that number could easily double if just one of those mines is built.

Additionally, natural gas exploration and production is already making its mark in the area, not only in nearby Fort St. John, but also just outside of Hudson's Hope.

"We've been active in Farrell Creek for a few years now," said David Markham, team lead for stakeholder relations for Talisman's operations in the Montney tight gas play, discussing his company's presence in the Hudson's Hope region.

"Talisman is the big player here," added Anderson, noting that the company is becoming a very strong supporter of the community as well.

That support has included leading the team of energy sector volunteers at the first Energy in Action event ever held at Hudson's Hope School on Wednesday, May 30.

Energy in Action is a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) program that travels to elementary schools in areas of oil and gas industry operations to teach the students about topics ranging from renewable and non-renewable resources to hydraulic fracturing, as well as the basics of energy, conservation and environmental stewardship.

The latter featured a class with Calgary-based bird expert Andrew Stiles and the construction of bird boxes to create new homes for local species during the Hudson's Hope stop.

"This is our first time doing this here in Hudson's Hope," said Kim Gray of CAPP. "It's really awesome that we've gotten so much company support."

Talisman was joined at Hudson's Hope School by Canbriam Energy, Champion Technologies, Tervita, Golder Associates, Suncor and ConocoPhillips.

"Hudson's Hope is a really unique little community," Gray continued. "And we're really excited to enhance the outdoor classroom and teach the students about birds and the bird habitat. And build more bird boxes."

Hudson's Hope School Principal Theresa Dantuma was thrilled to be included in the Energy in Action schedule this year.

"I think it means an awful lot of excitement," said Dantuma. "[The students are] getting the opportunity to create something that, before, just seemed to be a dream. They're learning all kinds of skills [and] information.

"It's just exciting that there's just so much participation, so much excitement," she added.

"It's awesome."

Susan Stark, a 42-year resident of Hudson's Hope just beginning her first term as a school board trustee with School District 60, was "very impressed" by the content of the classroom session delivered by Inside Education as well as the interaction between those teachers and the students.

Stark also emphasized the importance of the collaboration between the various groups involved in delivering Energy in Action.

"We sometimes only get one side of things," she said. "And I think it's very key to have the children be exposed to a whole learning situation like this."

"It's a partnership," added Paul Perkins.

Perkins has been with Talisman at their Fort St. John office for about four years, frequently traveling to Hudson's Hope as per his stakeholder relations role with the company.

"To have a successful partnership," he continued, "you need to understand each other and to move forward on that. And part of that is this relationship that we're building right now. They're always ongoing. And in this case, we're working with the school. So, it will be the kids, but it's also the teachers, it's the residents of Hudson's Hope."

Perkins explained that Talisman sought to build a good relationship with Hudson's Hope from the moment they first set foot in the Farrell Creek area, an effort that has involved regular visits with the mayor and the district council, as well as open houses that allow residents to talk to company representatives about the development.

"We were proactive," he said.

Talisman held their latest open house at the Hudson's Hope Community Hall on Wednesday, June 13, just two days after a community open house with natural gas processing and transmission company Spectra Energy.

"We have a long tradition of conducting open houses in conjunction with the communities so that we can inform them of the development activity," said Markham.

"More importantly," he continued, "to have personnel from Talisman available to answer any questions and respond to any concerns that community members may have."

Energy in Action acknowledges that children also have concerns - even fears - when it comes to oil and gas industry activity where they live.

"Everybody has that natural fear until it's explained," said Perkins.

"Here's an opportunity to take a look at some of the things that are happening in the area, whether it's wind farms, whether it's hydroelectric, whether it's oil and gas development, or even forestry," he added.

"All natural resource development."

"If there are questions or concerns about development, this is a good place to voice those questions to the companies that are here," said Gray.

"This is a collaborative effort," she continued. "And that's what's so unique about this program, is that everybody's here at once. It's not just one company. It's not just one community investment agenda. It's everybody here working together.

"It's important to connect the community here to the faces of industry to ensure that they create those solid relationships. So when there are questions in the future, they know who to contact."

Dantuma suggested that it is also important for those students whose parents work in primary resource industries such as the oil and gas sector.

"A lot of what supports Hudson's Hope is all of those industries that are all around us," she said. "And a lot of these kids have parents that are working in a lot of those areas. It helps bring what is in the area all together so they realize that it's a viable career, but it's a natural resource and it needs to be dealt with appropriately so that it will continue to be there.

"We need to respect what we've got, what we use."

"Most of the young kids going to this school, their parents are working for BC Hydro," added Anderson. "So, they see there's something else out [there] besides that."

Anderson also remarked on the participation of service sector companies like Golder and Tervita as a good way of demonstrating the scope of the energy sector.

"It just shows that Talisman can't operate without these other industries," she said.

"Overall," she added, "it's been a great day for both the children and industry."

Talisman also helped bring a different sort of educational experience to the students of Hudson's Hope School by sponsoring a field trip to nearby Cameron Lake on Monday, June 4. The excursion was part of the Project Webfoot program delivered by Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) and volunteers like Chris Maundrell, a professional biologist with Adlard Environmental in Charlie Lake.

The purpose of the session is to teach the students about wetland ecology.

"Had a couple of mallards that were nesting near the lake, as well as bufflehead on the lake," said Maundrell, adding that the students were able to view the waterfowl through binoculars.

"And then the bug dipping," he continued. "What we did is we had them go along the lakeshore and dip for different bugs.

"And then they would take those nets back to a tub, which was [full of] clean water, and they would dump the net in. And then they would look and see what they had actually caught. So, water boatmen, water striders, whirligigs, things like that were fairly common in the nets.

"And then we talked about the ecology, again, of wetlands and how they support wildlife. Different kinds of wildlife. Not just ducks, but ducks was the main focus."

Maundrell is pleased that Talisman is so supportive of the initiative.

"If Talisman can continue to support it, it's great," he said.

Talisman has a long relationship with DUC that dates back to 2004.

"In 2011, Talisman announced a fairly significant partnership with Ducks Unlimited where Talisman was named their national education sponsor," Markham explained. "Part of that means that we're able to continue to deliver Project Webfoot seminars with local schools in areas close to where we operate.

"It allows us to focus on our goal of protecting and conserving water and water ecosystems."

Obviously, a natural gas industry presence in Hudson's Hope isn't just about new hotels, apartment buildings and water treatment plants or fun educational experiences for local schoolchildren.

It is also about controversial issues such as the withdrawal of water from the Williston Reservoir for hydraulic fracturing that was approved by the provincial government last year.

Anderson chooses to look on the bright side.

"One of the big issues was the issue of the trucks on the road," said Anderson. "The pollution. The dust. The noise. The safety and everything. So, in a way, we got what we wanted. We got those heavy trucks off the road. It impacted some farmers or some landowners, but they were kept in the loop. And I don't know what kind of deal that was made with them or anything, but I think they were treated fairly during the whole process."

Additionally, the natural gas industry is about economic opportunities such as the partnership between Talisman and South African company Sasol to examine the feasibility of building a gas-to-liquids plant at Farrell Creek that would turn natural gas to diesel and other high energy fuels.

It can also mean more local economic benefits, but there is work still to be done. For example, Hudson's Hope presently lacks a service sector, an issue that was addressed in the new Official Community Plan (OCP) that was ratified in May.

"We designated some land for light industrial," said Anderson.

"A lot of our lands that surround Hudson's Hope are agricultural reserve," she continued. "So, that's an issue, too, that we just didn't have the land. We looked really hard and long at what we had. And we've come up with quite a bit of light industrial and some heavy industrial land."

The challenge is maintaining the image of the pretty valley town amidst industrial development.

"We're trying to keep the integrity of the beauty of our little community here by putting some of that industrial out in the semi-rural areas where there's nothing there," said Anderson, noting that those areas aren't quality agricultural land.

"You have to have buffer zones around that are treed and natural," she added. "So, through our bylaws, we're trying to address that situation, that they're not just going to plunk a building down here. There's bylaws that are going to address what type of building you put on there. The buffer zones around it. For the neighbouring community and also for the visual impact."

Anderson is optimistic about Hudson's Hope's ability to benefit from the oil and gas activity that has only just begun while staying true to itself.

"Even in talks with Talisman," she began, "they have said, 'If we had the resources here, we would be using [your] community more.' They need the resources like welding trucks and stuff like that. We don't have them."

Such are the challenges facing a natural gas producer operating in a community without a long oil and gas industry tradition.

"Obviously, at the earlier stages of our developments, there was a lot of education about what we were doing and the type of oil and gas activity we were pursuing in the area," said Markham.

"But now there's certainly greater familiarity with the terminology that we use and the practices that we use so that we're able to have very good discussions about our activities and how we can work with the community effectively to mitigate any concerns.

"It's great and it's encouraging being part of the community's growth and being part of the community's success."

@ Copyright Pipeline News North