UVic study raises safety concerns about oil, gas near schools

A University of Victoria study has recommended that the province require any new oil and gas developments to be built at least 1.5 kilometres away from schools, among other changes.

“The scientific evidence regarding the health and safety risks of natural gas production for children ... demonstrate the need for law reform in British Columbia,” the report states.

The University of Victoria Environment Law Centre released the report last week in which it used publicly available information to describe how many gas wells were near rural schools located in School Districts 59 and 60, which encompass the Dawson Creek and Fort St. John areas, respectively.

The report was done for the Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society (PESTS), a local environmental group. The proximity of schools to these wells presented an issue for Brian Derfler, the group’s president.

“Could I come into a Vancouver school and say parents ‘We're going to put your school in an emergency planning zone?’” he asked.

Five rural schools throughout both school districts have between 8 and 29 gas wells within two kilometres, the report states. In the case of one school, Upper Pine Elementary School, there was a well located barely 400 metres from its location – or about three football fields away.

The report states that eight schools are located within two kilometres of gas wells.

Five of these schools — McLeod Elementary, Rolla Traditional, Tate Creek Elementary, Upper Pine Elementary School and North Peace Secondary School — all have wells within one kilometre of their location. Three others — Pouce Coupe Elementary, Devereaux Elementary and Parkland Elementary — have wells within two kilometres.

According to SD 59’s safety policies, schools within one kilometre of gas operations “will receive additional consultation” from the oil and gas industry about their operations.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Energy and Mines who did not want to be named said that since 2010, the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission has done a mandatory review process for oil and gas activities within two kilometres of a school to ensure safety measures are reviewed and evaluated, like air monitoring requirements and emergency planning.

Candice Cloutier, a SD 59 spokeswoman, said that it is up to industry to contact the school district if they plan to do work near one of their buildings.

“They contact the school, they contact operations beforehand, they'll bring in their plan which is what they use,” she said. “They are the experts in the field.”

Cloutier said that she could not comment on all of the claims made in the report, since SD 59 did not do the same research.

The report claims that many wells can produce poisonous “sour gas,” which would be especially harmful to children. However, it’s still unclear about the actual number of wells located near schools that actually produce this type of gas.

Questions were posed to Hardy Friedrich, an OGC spokesman, about how many wells near these schools could have the potential to release sour gas. He referred back to the spokesperson statements, which did not include an answer to this question.

The proximity of schools and industry is not new to both the elected board and administration of SD 59.

"We've had conversations about safety of schools when there are well sites in very close proximity," said SD 59 Chair Richard Powell. "Our board is aware of the potential issues that could be."

However, Powell said that he hasn't heard major concerns coming from the schools about the issue: "(Our board) believes that the safety positions put in place are adequate at this time."

One Tate Creek parent, Tanya Mazanek, seemed to agree. She said she was “not overly” concerned with the possibility of gas leaks near the school.

“I guess leaks could happen anywhere,” she said.

Mazanek is in a somewhat unique situation, since her children were attending Tate Creek in 2008, when a pipeline bomber blew up an Encana pipeline near the school, causing poisonous gas to be released.

This caused the school’s emergency responses to kick in – something that did not impress Mazanek.

“I think they did a fairly poor job of it,” she said.

The school’s response is also discussed in the University of Victoria report.

“Tate Creek School was expected to duct tape cracks around school windows and doors. But this proved impractical and was not implemented,” the report states. “More important, the school was expected to shut off all furnaces and ensure outside air dampers were closed. But during the incident, the school only shut down two of its furnaces, later finding out that two more remained on during the leak, including the primary air-intake furnace. Fortunately, the failure to fully implement lock-down procedures did not appear to result in any serious bodily harm.”

However, Al van Tassel, SD 59’s director of operations, disputed portions of the account.

He said that the Tate Creek Elementary School acts as both a community centre and school. The furnaces on the school side were shut down, and the ones on the community centre side were still on – but a fire door separated the two buildings.

“There is no separate intake equipment for that building,” he said.

Regardless, however, Derfler was still unsatisfied with school districts’ management plans.

“The emergency response plans have major limitations,” said Derfler.

Calls to SD 60 board chair Jaret Thompson and superintendent Dave Sloan were not returned as of press time. However, The Globe and Mail quoted SD 60 assistant superintendent Stephen Petrucci last week as saying he agreed with the idea that his district was pretty comfortable with the existing regulations.

But the paper also quoted him as saying “It’s definitely not something we can be complacent about.”

The report also calls for industry to change how it “flares” during the course of natural gas operations. Flaring is when natural gas, for various reasons, must be burned instead of converted into something useful.

The report calls for industry to make every effort not to flare when school is in session, and to tell schools 24 hours in advance when they plan to flare in non-emergency situations.  

Cloutier said that she “did not have information about” whether or not this routinely happened during school hours.

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