Gas Well Worries Principal
Brett Johnson grew up where most British Columbians do, in the province's populous southwest corner. And the story he tells about what happened to him earlier this year, as a principal at a school far removed from the Vancouver-Victoria population hub, is one that he quite rightly concludes people down here wouldn't tolerate.
The story begins on the first day of this academic year, when Johnson arrived at the Upper Pine school near Fort St. John and learned that a gas well had been drilled a half-kilometre from where his students would soon be doing their spelling bees and math quizzes. And it takes a dramatic turn on October 5, the day Johnson realized just how vulnerable his 30 staff and 220 students were. That's when the hallways and classrooms of the rural school were permeated with sulphurous gas fumes, which Johnson feared originated at the nearby well site.
With the well so close, Johnson spent several panicky moments wondering whether he would have to evacuate the school--and if he did, whether or not he would be leading his students and staff into harm's way.
IN NORTHEASTERN B.C., most of the gas that companies pull out of the ground is "sour", meaning it has potentially enough hydrogen sulphide, or H2S, in it to knock people unconscious. At just 300 parts per million, H2S can paralyze a person's respiratory system in a heartbeat, leading to a quick and mercifully pain-free death.
The well that Calgary-based Samson Canada built near the Upper Pine school was classified as a "sweet" well, meaning it was relatively low in H2S. But sweet wells can sometimes produce sour gas, and Johnson wasn't taking any chances. Calls went quickly to the company--which previously had paid for buses to be parked out in front of the school in case something went wrong while bringing the well into production--and gas flow from the well was immediately shut off.
The leaking gas turned out not to be coming from the well but from a truck servicing the site. According to the Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), the regulator of B.C.'s energy industry, the truck driver inadvertently left a vent from his vehicle's storage tanks open, allowing a large amount of gas to escape into the air above the field.
"There was a north wind blowing," Johnson says. "It blew it right at the school, right into our air intake....If that indeed had been a sour-gas release, with the air intake system and so on and so forth, this would have been on the national news."
How Samson Canada, which is owned by Tulsa, Oklahoma--based Samson Investment Company, came to be drilling in a farmer's field just south of the Upper Pine school is an interesting story in itself.
Like many companies now drilling in northeastern B.C., Samson was encouraged by the province to develop prospective gas deposits outside of the traditional winter season, when frozen ground allows heavy equipment to be more easily moved.
Such developments are "good" for the region, the OGC said in a written response to questions posed by the Georgia Straight. "Increased summer drilling will lead to healthier, year round communities where work is available through more than one drilling season. This is good for the northeast and families that live there."
However, intensified summer drilling also appears to be setting the stage for conflict. Among the more likely candidate sites for "off season" wells are those adjacent to all-weather roads and in open areas such as farmer's fields. Consequently, many wells have been drilled close to rural residences only a 10- or 15-minute drive from downtown Fort St. John.
THE GAS LEAK on October 5 prompted a flurry of activity at the school and the local school board in nearby Fort St. John. Calls immediately went to the OGC and Samson Canada. Since the leak, there have been six school buses parked just outside Upper Pine's front doors on the 15 days when the company's drilling operations may have encountered sour-gas formations. Bus drivers remained on-site in the event they had to evacuate students and staff.
And these are not the only measures that have been taken, Johnson says. A van has been stationed outside the school every day during school hours, its driver equipped with an air monitor. Johnson himself now carries a monitor with him at all times. He has also been forced to familiarize himself with his building's air-ventilation system. And he has twice supervised evacuation drills.
Johnson says that in discussions with the local school board, concerned staff, and parents, a decision has been made that any time H2S levels in the school exceed 60 parts per billion all students and staff will be evacuated. Even at far lower H2S levels of 10 parts per billion, students and staff will vacate the school in the event those levels fail to drop after 15 minutes.
All told, Johnson says, his dealings with the school board, parents, teachers, students, the OGC, and Samson has eaten up the equivalent of two working weeks this school year. And more work may yet lie ahead. Throughout it all, he notes, Samson has been extremely cooperative, particularly following the October scare.
"Samson wasn't proactive, probably because they felt they didn't need to be," Johnson says. "But they've been very cooperative since the concerns were raised. They were very reasonable with us. Every time we asked for something they gave it to us. The buses were a fairly costly enterprise."
Dealing with the gas well and health and safety initiatives has been somewhat of a diplomatic challenge too, Johnson says, in that a lot of people living in the immediate area, including parents of the school kids, benefit directly from oil-and-gas company activities. That includes Tracey Moore, head of Upper Pine's parent advisory committee, or PAC, who does contract work in the energy industry. But even Moore said there are limits and that she and others want the provincial government to establish zones where gas wells won't be built.
"Development is a way of life around here," Moore says. "But perhaps there has to be some consideration about distances from public facilities."
According to Johnson and Moore, Samson was doing "directional drilling" at the Upper Pine site. Rather than drilling straight down in search of gas, the company was angling in the direction of a reserve under the school property.
Samson officials declined to be interviewed.
THE OGC SAID that Samson's well was considered a "sweet" well, with H2S readings of 200 parts per billion. A well is considered sour when its H2S levels exceed one percent, or 10,000 parts per million.
The OGC also said that it is "possible" that a sweet well may later become sour should a company return to the well site, reenter it, and access gas from a "different zone or formation" as it redrills.
Because Samson's well was not considered sour, no emergency-response plan was required, the OGC said. Had it been sour, however, it is unclear whether or not the school would have been notified. Each sour-gas well has its own Emergency Response Zone, or ERZ. Some zones may be little bigger than the area right around a well. Others may be larger--four square kilometres or more. Much depends on the volume of gas, the gas pressure, and its toxicity.
According to the OGC, each zone is calculated on a case-by-case basis. Energy companies are only required to notify those residents, schools, and businesses within the zone. Because no such calculations were made at Upper Pine, it is unclear if the half-kilometre distance from well site to school would have placed the school inside or outside a theoretical ERZ.
The issue of how far wells should be set back from residences, schools, and local businesses is becoming a matter of heightened concern in northeastern B.C. At present, sour-gas wells in the region may be built as close as 100 metres to certain residences. At least one other school in B.C.'s Peace River region--the Clearview school east of Fort St. John--has had a gas well located near enough to it that buses were brought onto the property in case an emergency evacuation was necessary.
Richard Neufeld, B.C.'s Energy and Mines minister, is also MLA for Peace River North, the sprawling riding in which the Upper Pine school is located. In an interview with the Straight, Neufeld said the province is piggybacking on a review spearheaded by Alberta's Energy Utilities Board. The review is seeking to establish if setbacks from sour-gas wells should be increased. Studies focusing on cattle health are being conducted in all three western provinces, Neufeld said, and the results should be known toward the end of 2005.
As for whether or not the Samson well near the Upper Pine school should have been located farther away, Neufeld would not comment.
"We are reviewing all setbacks that deal with gas wells and sour-gas wells from habitable dwellings," he stressed. "We could beat this around forever. I don't have the magic number."
Neufeld's cabinet colleague, Education Minister Tom Christensen, also declined to speculate on whether the gas well should have been placed a greater distance from the school. "Quite frankly, we need to leave it to the experts in the area to determine what's appropriate," Christensen said.
Neufeld reiterated that even though the well was classified as a sweet-gas well, he saw nothing wrong with parking buses in front of the school or conducting periodic emergency-evacuation drills.
"You know what? When I was a kid going to school we used to have emergency evacuations too," Neufeld said. The minister added, however, that he had "no idea" what the reason was for his boyhood drills, whether they were simple fire drills or had to do with the risks posed by nearby gas wells.
The education minister did say, however, that he would have preferred not to see the events that unfolded at the school this fall. "Obviously, we need to do what we can to ensure we're not experiencing stuff like this," Christensen said.
At press time, the Straight learned that a surveying crew was on Upper Pines' property in preparation for locating a sour-gas well about one kilometre from the school.