Saskatchewan·Special Report

Rapidly growing oil industry causing health concerns in southeast Sask.

It’s not just people living near wells who are concerned about the growing sour gas problem in southeast Saskatchewan.

‘They are just pillaging,’ says Oxbow resident

Sour gas from oil wells a deadly problem in Sask.

9 years ago
Duration 2:08
Human and animal deaths linked to hydrogen sulphide emissions, Geoff Leo reports.

It's not just people living near wells who are concerned about the growing sour gas problem in southeast Saskatchewan.

CBC's iTeam has reported that a growing number of wells are producing and leaking deadly levels of the toxic substance, which is also known as hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

The provincial government has confirmed that in one case, several calves appear to have been killed by the toxic gas. In addition, Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) is investigating the death of a Wawota man who was poisoned by sour gas almost a year ago. 

Lisa Drummond, an Oxbow resident, said she continues to experience headaches following a particularly bad exposure to toxic fumes. (CBC)
Lisa Drummond, who's an office manager in the town of Oxbow, Sask., said the toxic fumes are starting to affect her daily life. Oxbow is about 250 kilometres southeast of Regina. 

She's still having headaches after being overwhelmed by sour gas while driving near a school in the area in January. 

"It was so strong by the time I got to the gas station, I flung my door open and I almost vomited in the parking lot," Drummond said. "That's how strong it was."

She said she was nauseous all day and "I have not felt 100 per cent since this happened in late January." 

Drummond said she moved to Oxbow seven years ago for the peaceful rural lifestyle, but she said since that time the oil industry has expanded in the area at an astonishing rate. 

"This was our valley before they came in here. Like they are just pillaging," Drummond said.

She says the area is now overrun with signs of the industry like pump jacks and flaring.

"It is not a pretty sight anymore to drive by and see all those things out there."

Professor studies the effects of booming industry

Emily Eaton, an economic geographer at the University of Regina who studies the oil industry, said the pace of development in Saskatchewan and the lack of industry oversight comes at a cost. (CBC)
An economic geographer from the University of Regina said over the past few years there has been a lot of very public celebration about the benefits of the oil industry, but not much talk about the costs. 

Emily Eaton is researching the effects of the economic boom in southeast Saskatchewan and she said she's found that some people don't feel they can speak freely.

'They are suffering from the impacts of development, but they are to a certain extent cautious about speaking about those impacts because they think it might endanger, for example, their neighbours or their child's job," Eaton said. 

But she said, what residents and people in the industry have told her has raised serious questions about the sustainability of the growth.  

"I think that the pace of development is really outrageous right now and we don't have the resources or the staff to keep up with what's happening," Eaton said. 

Eaton notes that there are just a handful of inspectors, charged with enforcing the rules on 80,000 wells in the province. 

According to the Ministry of Economy, there are 16 inspectors in Saskatchewan. They're responsible for inspecting 10,000 wells in the province this year, or 625 wells each. 

There's been sites that have not received the attention they should.- Ed Dancsok, assistant deputy minister for the petroleum and natural gas division

In addition, they're required to inspect new drilling projects and pipelines and review any spills.

The assistant deputy minister for the petroleum and natural gas division of the ministry of economy agrees that because of the booming economy it's been difficult for industry and government to keep up. But he said this year he's asked his inspectors to focus on the wells that are most likely to be sour. 

"There's been sites that have not received the attention they should," Ed Dancsok said. "So our stepped-up enforcement actions are starting to correct that."

And Dancsok said, he's turned to Alberta, which has had serious problems with sour gas in the past. 

"We are already engaged with Alberta Energy, the regulator, to leverage some of their learnings on their four year strategy that they've just completed and using that to guide us to the future." 
Eaton said she's talked with oil companies that have moved to Saskatchewan from Alberta who've been struck by the lack of oversight in this province.

"Because staffing in the petroleum development branch field offices is so low, they are not under the same kind of scrutiny that they are in Alberta."

Eaton said that fact may lead some companies to bend the rules. 

"There are some good rules that exist, but the culture isn't to take those necessarily as seriously as companies should, because they know they can take shortcuts because they are not being closely monitored."

The vice president of western Canadian operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers agreed with Eaton that Saskatchewan's rules are good. 

Brad Herald, a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers vice president, agreed that the province lags behind Alberta when it comes to enforcement, but argues it’s not necessarily good for industry. (CBC)
And Brad Herald also agreed that the province lags behind Alberta when it comes to enforcement. 

But he argued that's not necessarily good for his members. He said industry and government both want compliance with the rules. 

"Our members want a level playing field.  They don't want to see anybody skirting those rules either purposefully or unintentionally."

He said if companies are allowed to flout the rules, that gives them a competitive advantage over firms that do the right thing. 

Veterinarian turned H2S watchdog

Phil Murray told CBC's iTeam that even though he's a veterinarian and rancher by trade, he's had to take on a watchdog role, when it comes to industry emissions. 

"Our aim is not to be obstructive or abusive. Our aim is to have the problem fixed so we're not putting up with the possible effects of H2S on our livestock."

Murray said he has often complained to the industry about odour. He said sometimes, when there's no response, he's had to elevate his concerns all the way to the minister's office. 

He said it's a delicate situation, because he does business with oil companies, while at the same time complaining about toxic fumes. 

"Yes we enjoy the oil patch income. It often makes life a lot more comfortable, especially when you are nearing retirement," Murray said. 

"But we do not want to have health risk and we do not want to have health risk to our livestock."

Herald agrees that the relationship between industry and communities can be difficult. 

He said on the upside, a booming industry brings in lots of people and jobs. "It's been a boom for the province," Herald pointed out. 

"But certainly there's some drawbacks if you're in the local area with that type of increase in industry activity."

With files from CBC's Roxanna Woloshyn