British Columbia

Shale gas boom making us sick, say B.C. residents

Residents living amidst the shale gas boom in northeastern B.C. say the industry is making them sick — and their call for government action is being backed by medical health officers.

Medical health officers demand proper tracking, surveillance

Residents living amidst the shale gas boom in northeastern B.C. say the industry is making them sick — and their call for government action is being backed by medical health officers.

Shale gas fracking — blasting water, sand and chemicals into deep, underground rocks to release natural gas — has become a multi-billion dollar industry in northeastern B.C.

But several farmers who live near gas fields in the Dawson Creek area told CBC News they fear the boom is making them sick, and they are demanding a public health inquiry.

Wilma Avery says her lungs were damaged when one company flared its wells and gas plant below her house during a weather inversion in March.

"My doctor came and looked at me and said, 'I think you've breathed some noxious fumes.' I said, 'I think I did, too,'" Avery said.

"It's a yellow pall that was completely around me. I had a cough that lasted — to put it crudely, you lose all control of everything. Most of the time I  just sat on the toilet and coughed. All I'm asking is this should never happen again, because the next time it'll probably kill me."

'I can't breathe'

On a ranch nearby, Glenda Wager spent hours in a toxic gas cloud after a major leak in 2009, from which she's still recovering.

Those living near B.C.'s shale gas boom say it's making them sick. (Betsy Trumpener and Robert Doane/CBC)

"I can't breathe very well, can't work like I used to," she said.

"[There's] pain in my chest, I can't walk and talk. I used to be very fit, not anymore. I can't train my horses — if they buck, I can't hang on. I can't breathe."

Brian Derfler, a second-generation grain farmer in the area, said he's driven through clouds of toxic gas on three separate occasions.

"You're driving through the valley and ... this doesn't smell right, eyes are burning, you have this acid taste in your mouth, it can't be good for you," he said.

"You close your windows, turn off the heater fan and just gun it through. You don't know where the source is and you're not going to stop to find out."

'Left on our own'

Derfler fears the next leak could be deadly.

"We have no detection equipment, no protection equipment, no training," he said. "So we are basically left on our own. If you're 100 metres from a well blowout — who's going to be evacuating you?"

Colleen Bordulla, who works as a medic in the gas fields, said no one knows the cumulative effect of locals being exposed to gas and chemicals — and no one seems to care.

"It's like its been left to the farmers and ranchers to find the solutions," she said. "It should be the ministries of environment and health looking into this."

'If you don't measure it, you don't know'

Dr. Charl Badenhorst wants the government to step in. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

The residents are demanding action from government — and they have the support of public health officials, including medical health officer Dr. Charl Badenhorst of the Northern Health Authority.

He wants proper tracking and surveillance in place to determine whether B.C.'s gas fields are a health hazard.

"I drive around and smell a lot of things I don't want to smell," Badenhorst said.

"Maybe there is people close to [gas] wells that are sick or their animals are sick or their water is of poor quality. But if you don't measure it, you don't know it. These chemicals released into the water, the air, is definitely a hazard. If we don't monitor these problems, we don't know."

B.C.'s Ministry of Energy and Mines declined requests by CBC News to respond, saying the province hopes to have an update soon.

With files from the CBC's Betsy Trumpener