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Fracking health report criticized

A report commissioned by the provincial government about fracking's impact on health is not without its critics. Last Thursday, the province released the Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) for oil and gas development.

A report commissioned by the provincial government about fracking's impact on health is not without its critics.

Last Thursday, the province released the Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) for oil and gas development. Its main conclusion was that health risks from oil and gas activities in Northeast B.C. were “low.”

“I’m a little bit stunned by the general statement that the risk to health [by oil and gas health activities] is low,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director for the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre. “That doesn’t sound like a scientific statement to me.”

Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society (PESTS) criticized the decision to hire Intrinsik to produce the report, because the Calgary-based company was hired by Encana Corporation to study a sour gas leak in 2009.

“We felt during their presentation that they downplayed the dangers of [sour gas] extremely well,” a spokesman from PESTS was reported saying at the time.

Bart Koppe, a senior scientist for Intrinsik, stands by the conclusions of the most recent report.

“I wouldn’t say that [Peace Region residents] should be worried,” he said. “We were able to show that some of them were influenced by oil and gas, and others weren’t … there doesn’t appear to be any issues right now under current conditions, but by having an effective air quality monitoring program, you can ensure that that doesn’t change over time.”

Koppe also said there was no link between illness in the area and oil and gas activity.

“Northern Health is studying that as well, so they’ll produce a report where they’ll talk about the incidents of certain types of cancer, respiratory disease like asthma, constructive obstructive pulmonary disease,” he said. “That’s why one of the recommendations [of the HHRA] is to continue to try and track these and have a health survey in place where they’re able to look at these diseases and see if it’s changing over time.”

Koppe acknowledged that the study did not analyze a scenario whereby natural gas development increases.

In addition to industry clients, Intrinsik has also worked for First Nations and governments.

“At the end of the day, whether or not the province would have hired us for work, industry would have hired us, or First Nations would have hired us, the answers would have been the same,” said Koppe.

Sandborn said he was “disappointed” with the process.

“We thought we were going to get a robust health and safety analysis, and I would say that the process has been less than robust,” he said. “The input from stakeholders has been inadequate. [The Environmental Law Centre is] one of the leading groups that’s done analysis on reform of legislation and what the rules are in other jurisdictions, and we were not consulted at all by Intrinsik.”

Rick Koechl, the former chair of the Northeast Oil and Gas Health Advisory Committee (NEOGHAC), felt there were points missing in the report.

He criticized the report for leaving out analysis on housing, sexually transmitted diseases, stress, mental health, addictions and quality of life issues related to oil and gas development.

“We have a member on the committee who’s involved with public health," he said. "Her point was, there is information that is out there that would have helped them do this.”

Koechl noted that the report did not deal with individual well sites or accidental releases. 

“They couldn’t report on some of the low emissions, low grade emissions, or fugitive emissions that you and I are exposed to on a regular basis,” he said.

Koechl was “disappointed” with the wording of some of the recommendations.

The report recommends that the province “should consider the implementation of a reciprocal agreement framework for setbacks between the oil and gas industry and B.C.’s communities.

He questions the reciprocity. In his view “the problem isn’t equal.”

Koechl said that while oil and gas companies have wanted to build natural gas wells closer to homes, owners are less inclined to build their homes closer to natural gas wells. “I don’t go out and build 100 metres from a gas plant — trust me,” he said.

He said a company approached him years ago to build a gas well in the middle of his property’s horse corral.

“If my house is sitting there, don’t you think I should take precedence over the companies who come in and say we own [the underground] rights, we should come in and drill there?” he asked. “They’re saying fair is fair — but who wins?”

The province promised to accept all 14 recommendations of the report, but many were worded to say that the province “should consider” certain changes.

“In terms of timelines for implementation, these are ongoing, but there is a commitment to provide updates every six months,” Alan Clay, a spokesman for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission wrote in an email to the Alaska Highway News.

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