Killing Fields

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      When Moe Holman crested the hill 20 years ago and saw the faint, dirty-yellow cloud creeping across the road downhill of him, he quickly braked his car and slapped the switch that shut off the air vents. Holman, who knew this patch of Northern Alberta better than most local farmers, couldn't quite believe his eyes. The cloud of sour gas could only have come from one place, and that was a well almost eight kilometres away.

      After realizing he was clear of the cloud's path, Holman got out of the car and went to the trunk to retrieve his binoculars. A light breeze carried the gas east, and as the veteran oilpatch worker trained his binoculars downwind, he had plenty of time to see it drift toward a gaggle of snow geese grazing on some lush, green grass in a farmer's field. As it overtook them, each of the birds dropped, most never having time to lift their beaks from the ground, let alone attempt to fly.

      On February 5, 2001, a young Fort St. John man named Ryan Strand, all six feet, 175 pounds of him, fell just like one of those unfortunate birds. Twenty-five years old, he had been on the job for only 11 months when he got the last call of his brief working life. The call came from Todd Thompson, a control-room operator with Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., and it directed him to a well site where, only five months earlier, an uncontrolled sour-gas leak had sent a hoe operator scrambling into the gathering darkness of a late September evening.

      The well was near Buick Creek, a forlorn collection of houses anchored by a general store and its muddy, rutted parking lot. It was also close to the Blueberry reserve, a First Nations community at the bottom of a steeply sloped valley, which is exactly the wrong place to be during an uncontrolled sour-gas leak: the gas is heavier than air, and it sinks.

      During a visit to the reserve, I learned firsthand why its residents live in fear. In several places, electronic monitors sit atop tall towers, screening the air. When sour gas is detected, alarms wail and people rush into vehicles, including a van donated by CNRL. On the lands above the reserve, searing flames sometimes shoot from stacks as energy companies flare sour gas to reduce pressure in the lines. Those stacks, and nearby compressors that sound a lot like jets screaming down runways, leave some locals feeling as if they live in a war zone. It's a place they call Little Beirut.

      In his notes from that night, Thompson recorded that he sent Strand to the well at 21:58, where Strand was to clear a hydrate plug, frozen gas and water that had blocked the line and forced the shutdown of the well's pumpjack. Pumpjacks pull oil or gas out of wells and into the pipes carrying B.C.'s fossil-fuel riches south. They commonly shut down when hydrate plugs form. Just over one hour later, at 22:58:31, Thompson logged the first of two sour-gas leaks at the well site. Strand just had time to radio "I need help; I need help" before all talk ceased.

      FAR FROM BEING the exclusive worry of "fanatics" like Alberta farmer and convicted gas-well saboteur Wiebo Ludwig, sour-gas leaks are a growing concern to residents in northeastern B.C., where young people like Strand are put in harm's way every day. At a minimum, more than a dozen potentially lethal leaks occur every year. Although reliable statistics on workers "knocked down" by sour gas are unavailable, interviews with long-time energy workers suggest they are far more common than the industry and provincial governments like to admit.

      Fortunately, the few leaks that are reported have often occurred in remote areas far from communities. One such incident, involving Calgary-based Westcoast Gas Services Inc., now part of Duke Energy, saw a spectacular three to five million cubic feet of poison gas released into the atmosphere far to the north of Fort St. John on Victoria Day, 2000. Had the leak occurred elsewhere along northern B.C.'s extensive network of wells and pipelines--near Chetwynd, Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, or Fort St. John--hundreds of holiday revellers may have died, as did 243 residents in Xiaoyang, China, in December 2003 when a sour-gas well ruptured. In what Chinese officials would later call a 25-square-kilometre "death zone", another 9,000 people were injured and 40,000 people had to flee their homes.

      In the meantime, these cautionary tales on the deaths of two young men in B.C.'s oilpatch highlight the dangers inherent in the province's frantic rush to double its oil and gas production. As noted on the Ministry of Energy and Mines' Web site, oil and gas exploration and production are the top natural-resource generators of direct revenue for B.C., and the Liberals are "committed to opening up every region and community of the province" to this wealth by offering a "streamlined regulatory environment". It would seem that the utmost care should be taken in terms of which regulations are under consideration for such streamlining.

      "TURTLE" WAS WHAT Ryan Strand's high-school chums called him. It was one of those nicknames that stuck precisely because it was the opposite of what he was. Ryan's mother, Trudy, said her son, who towered over her, was never one to loll on the sofa in front of the tube. Always active, he channelled much of his energy into art. He'd done all the graphics for his high-school yearbook. His paintings hung in local businesses, many containing some quirky element that marked them as his. In a dark detail that emerged the night he died, his art confirmed his passing.

      Awoken by a ringing telephone at 3 a.m., Trudy listened in growing dread as a policeman told her about an accident. Was she Ryan Strand's mother? Did her son have a tattoo on the back of his calf? When Trudy heard those questions, she knew her Ryan was gone. She never told the faceless constable that the tattoo portrayed a sea turtle, with a shark and other fish milling about, and that in a treasure chest, among the gold, leaned a quart of two-percent milk. It was Ryan's design.

      Ryan's death was recently highlighted in a Workers' Compensation Board of BC safety-awareness campaign. But an investigation by the Georgia Straight has uncovered several disturbing details about Ryan's death and working conditions in B.C.'s energy patch, details not contained in the pages of a WCB investigation into Ryan's death or in a BC Coroners Service judgment of inquiry. Neither report, both of which took more than two years to be released, mentions the previous and potentially deadly leak at the well site five months earlier. This fact only emerged when the Straight requested a list of sour-gas leaks from B.C.'s Oil and Gas Commission, regulator of the province's energy industry. That June application yielded a catalogue of 73 separate sour-gas leaks from 1999 to the present, six occurring in the same region where Ryan met his end. Significantly, the list is incomplete, as both leaks at the well where Ryan died, including the one that killed him, are absent. When those events are included, almost 11 percent of the potentially lethal sour-gas leaks reported to the OGC occurred near Buick Creek.

      When notified that its own tally did not contain the incident involving Ryan's death, the OGC furnished the Straight with a copy of a "well blowout and fatality report", including a short briefing note to Richard Neufeld, Minister of Energy and Mines. The note stated: "There was a previous uncontrolled release of gas from this well on September 22, 2000.

      "There does not appear to be any linkage between that incident and this accident," the brief continues. "This is one of the types of facilities routinely inspected by the Oil and Gas Commission's Compliance and Enforcement inspectors. This well was inspected on September 5, 2000 and again immediately following the September 22, 2000 gas release. There were no deficiencies noted at either time which could have anticipated this accident."

      Given how poisonous sour gas is, the WCB requires that companies inform it when leaks occur. Yet the Straight has learned that in the past five years, the WCB was notified of such occurrences just five times. The obvious discrepancy between the OGC's and WCB's figures suggests that regulators are not rigorously documenting leaks; nor are companies routinely reporting to all relevant agencies. Furthermore, in the five years prior to the OGC's creation in 1999, no fewer than five provincial departments had responsibility for collecting data on leaks of one of the most toxic substances known. Curiously, the Provincial Emergency Program, which coordinates responses to public emergencies, was not among them. PEP only required reporting beginning in April of this year.

      All of this stands in stark contrast to the proactive approach the provincial government has taken in dealing with the threats posed to residents in Kelowna, Barriere, Lillooet, and other communities in recent years due to the rash of fires sweeping through the province's tinder-dry Interior forests. People in those communities were told to pack their suitcases and be ready to flee at a moment's notice in the event that the highly visible fires got too close to their homes. But in the northeast, where an invisible or barely visible poison-gas cloud can overwhelm you in milliseconds, not even those who work with it appear to know all of the relevant facts.

      If Ryan Strand was aware that a sour-gas leak had occurred at the Buick Creek wellhead just five months prior to his death, it is not reflected anywhere in the pages of the WCB report, obtained by means of a freedom-of-information request, or in the coroners service judgment. If he did know, one wonders whether he may have asked for backup before being placed in harm's way. Or whether he may have chosen to don a "self-contained breathing apparatus"--a tight-fitting facemask and air supply--rather than leave it in the cab of his truck, just metres away from where he would die.

      NOT ALL NATURAL gas in B.C. is sour, but the majority is. Hydrogen sulphide, or H2S, is the component of most concern in the gas. An H2S concentration of just 500 parts per million can cause respiratory paralysis and unconsciousness. Unless quickly revived, those knocked down by sour gas die of suffocation within minutes.

      Moe Holman, 68, worked all over northern B.C. and Alberta in his 45 years in the energy industry. Gassed and knocked down twice himself, once while 10 metres up a ladder in an Alberta gas plant, he also saw many coworkers struck. When reached in Calgary, Holman told about a time he was working near Chetwynd and saw a man drive by in a pickup, destined for a downhill well.

      "I heard the horn of the truck go," Holman recalled. "I had a pretty good idea what it was. Me and another guy masked up. We had a sniffer [an H2S monitor] with us, and we were detecting it. It came into the guy's truck through the heating system and it knocked him out and he fell forward onto the steering wheel and his body hit the horn. We got to the truck and I pushed him over and drove up the hill. I put my mask on him and he came around."

      Among the scarier aspects of rescues is what happens when downed workers are revived. "These guys are often really violent when they come around. You feel that the person that is there when you come out of it is the one that caused you to suffer," Holman said. "And if it's inside a plant it's a real bugger. It's really bad...because often they'll start to climb and you'll have a bitch of a time getting them down."

      Kirby Purnell, a long-time worker at the McMahon gas plant near Taylor in northeastern B.C., was gassed in 1974 when a compressor cap on a gas line blew under extreme pressure. The H2S levels were a whopping 40,000 parts per million. All Purnell remembers is turning before blacking out. "You breathe that little bit into your lungs, your blood picks that up and takes it to your brain, it paralyses your respiratory centre, and you just literally become unconscious in an instant," he said in a phone interview. Fortunately, Purnell's head hit an unlatched door. He fell through it and was spotted by another worker who dragged him away, itself a dangerous task because often would-be rescuers, acting instinctively, succumb to the poison themselves.

      Gas workers and owners of land near wells have long believed that there are health risks associated with even low levels of H2S, suspicions that were bolstered in late June of this year when University of Calgary researchers released a study showing how long-term exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulphide impairs or destroys memory in animals.

      Holman said that long-time gas-plant workers might lose their sense of smell or see rainbows around incandescent lights. Soon after that, their eyes may begin to feel like they've been roughed up with sandpaper. To combat that abrasive feeling, Holman said, he and others used to rinse out their eyes with condensed milk. "Ordinary milk didn't work as well. And Carnation was better than Alpha," he said with a grim chuckle. Holman also said the intense, back-of-the-skull headaches he suffered were also a result of sour-gas exposure.

      If there's one thing anyone working, living, or travelling in the energy patch must remember, it's which way the wind blows, Holman said. "And I mean that literally." It's a lesson he never forgot after watching those geese fall.

      Trudy Strand's greatest worry was that Ryan would have an accident going to and from work, not on the work site itself. She felt that he was relatively safe, a perception she now says was shaped by years working for Petro-Canada out of their Fort St. John offices, where she and a girlfriend time-shared a secretarial job, giving Ryan an inside shot at a summer posting with the Canadian energy giant.

      At 21, Ryan found himself working for one of the biggest companies in the patch, out of the Jedney field, two hours north of Fort St. John. He progressed from maintenance work to working on pumpjacks and compressors, taking safety courses along the way. Significantly, Petro-Canada's Jedney field workers were successfully unionized two years later, joining a select group of only 300 workers in B.C.'s energy patch covered by collective agreements. But because Ryan was on contract, he was let go. His next and last job would as a contract operator with CNRL.

      Ryan had only worked for the company 11 months when he got sent to the Buick Creek wellhead at two minutes to 10 on the evening of February 5, 2001.

      A WCB investigation shows that a pumpjack at the site had shut down due to a hydrate plug in the line. Such blockages consist of gas molecules trapped in ice at low temperature and under high pressure. They are common and, in fact, had blocked the line at exactly the same well site only 12 hours before Ryan visited there. To get the gas flowing again in the -20í‚ ° C weather, Ryan had to dissolve the plug. Doing that involved a rather crude procedure in which a hose was run from the exhaust of his pickup and wrapped, along with rags, around the well piping where the suspected plug was. Ryan then climbed back into the truck and, with the engine idling in neutral, placed a pipe wrench against the accelerator to rev up the engine and warm the hose and pipe.

      Back at CNRL's control room, Todd Thompson radioed to Ryan: "You know she's all clear on my end, look good yer end?"

      "Yup," Ryan replied.

      Ryan then reset what is called a Presco-Dyne switch, a safety device that automatically shuts down the pumpjack in the event of a sudden pressure change. Then he restarted the pump. Two minutes later, the pumpjack went down again. Something was still blocking the line. The WCB report picks up what happened next.

      "Evidence indicates that STRAND then closed the isolation valve under the Presco-Dyne switch, bled off the pressure between the isolation valve and the switch, and, at 22:57, restarted the pumpjack a second time."

      What Ryan didn't know was that in the short section of pipe one or more other hydrate plugs were still in the line. Worse yet, the pumpjack was restarted with the Presco-Dyne switch off. It took only a minute and a half for the powerful pump to increase pressure to the bursting point. When a cap meant to prevent a blowout gave way, it did so with enough force to dent the side of Ryan's truck. Later investigation revealed that the blowout-preventer cap failed "primarily because the threads on the end cap were not machined to the right profile" and because the cap was improperly inserted, neither of which were Ryan's work.

      It took several minutes for Jerry Giesbrecht, a contract gas-plant operator, to reach Ryan after Giesbrecht received the call from Thompson. According to the WCB report, a masked Giesbrecht found Ryan "lying on the ground, almost completely buried in highly viscous fluid". The H2S readings at the well site were well beyond the lethal level, roughly 100,000 parts per million. After dragging him away and wiping Ryan's face as best he could, Giesbrecht called Thompson to get an ambulance. As Giesbrecht performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Ryan, Thompson raced toward the accident site in an emergency vehicle. While driving, he radioed company personnel, telling them to warn local residents. Ryan never regained consciousness. His lifeless body was transferred to an ambulance on the Alaska Highway. In the early morning hours of February 6, he was pronounced dead at Fort St. John Hospital.

      ONE MONTH LATER, on a lonely winter road outside Fort Nelson, another young man in his 20s died in B.C.'s oilpatch. His name was Ryan as well. Ryan Goertzen. The circumstances surrounding his death were very different from Strand's, but they highlight another dangerous aspect of work in the North: the lure of money, an inducement so strong that people will work beyond the normal bounds of personal safety, endangering themselves and others in the process.

      Goertzen was a Prairie boy, growing up in the little Manitoba town of Hamiota. Like many, he graduated from high school with no idea what he would do. "He was playing in a rock 'n' roll band, and not doing much besides that," his mother, Penny Goertzen, recalled in a letter to the Straight. "I was fed up with the partying and his apparent lack of responsibility and completely stressed out with dealing with the responsibilities of trying to raise the children by myself."

      Penny and her husband, Rudy, had six kids together. But almost all the work of raising the kids fell to Penny, she told the Straight in a follow-up phone interview, because 14 years earlier Rudy had opted to leave Manitoba and work in B.C.'s oilpatch. Last year, Rudy grossed about $120,000. Big money for the family, but at a cost of Rudy routinely working 400-hour months during the winter and only being home a few weeks each year. Lured by promises of work, the Goertzen's eldest son, Travis, followed in his dad's footsteps. Penny figured it was the right path for Ryan, too.

      "Ryan didn't want to go," Penny remembered. "He didn't want to leave his girlfriend, Andrea." But, Penny continued, "he decided he would go because he wanted to make some money and come back and go to college with Andrea."

      He left home on January 2, 2001. He was 19. He would die less than three months later, six weeks after his 20th birthday.

      Ryan worked as a "swamper", riding a truck with his dad to drilling sites, where he dismantled equipment, loaded it onto trucks, and tied it down.

      In much of the oilpatch, work is frenetic in the late-fall and winter months, when the ground freezes and companies can more readily move heavy equipment used for exploration, drilling, and pipeline work. Like his father and brother, Ryan was sleep-deprived and utterly fatigued by long hours of hard physical work. But unlike them, his exhaustion involved "spells": periods of racing and irregular heart rhythm. The episodes kept returning, and on March 16 Ryan visited the emergency room in Fort Nelson, complaining of a racing heart.

      What he told the doctors there was of obvious interest to B.C. coroner Beth Larcombe, who noted in her subsequent investigation into Ryan's death that he told the doctor he had logged 263 hours of work in the previous two weeks--almost 19 hours per day, every day, for 14 days in a row. But so strong was the push to work that Ryan refused to undergo a 24-hour heart-monitoring exercise in Fort Nelson, opting instead to rejoin his father and brother.

      Two weeks later, just after he and his father undid the chains on the tires of their truck, Ryan grabbed his chest and slumped over in the cab.

      In the pages of Larcombe's report and a subsequent report by Human Resources and Development Canada (the federal agency had jurisdiction in this case, not the WCB, because of the interprovincial nature of the business), Ryan's employer, Streeper Petroleum and Contracting Ltd., was found to have only the most rudimentary of emergency employee-evacuation plans in place. When Ryan collapsed, the company called the Fort Nelson General Hospital and, after the hospital provided the phone number, the British Columbia Ambulance Service.

      A lack of concrete information on the Goertzens' exact location resulted in Streeper being unable to supply the necessary information for the first of two helicopters sent to locate Ryan. That helicopter flew for more than two hours without finding the accident site. As the minutes turned to hours, a second helicopter closer to the scene was called and easily located Ryan. But by then it was way too late. At that point, Rudy and Travis were physically and emotionally spent, having performed CPR on Ryan for hours after company resuscitation gear failed. The CPR continued in the air but was halted by doctors in Fort Nelson, who pronounced Ryan dead three hours after suffering his last, fatal spell.

      An autopsy later revealed that Ryan died as a result of an undiagnosed cardiomyopathy, essentially an enlargement of the heart. The condition was one that he had carried unknown into the field.

      According to Victor Huckell, a clinical professor of medicine at UBC and a cardiologist who specializes in people with cardiomyopathy, in a normal person the body responds to physical stress and fatigue by producing adrenaline and other chemicals. These act as stimulants, countering the fatigue, and are relatively harmless except for raising the blood pressure a little. But in a person with a cardiomyopathy, the same chemicals can make odd heart rhythms potentially a whole lot worse. "This poor kid, I'm sure, had a cardiomyopathy that was not work-related," he told the Straight in a phone interview. "And his demise may well have been accelerated by the excessive work." In other words, he may have worked himself into an early grave.

      According to figures published by the B.C. WCB, in the five years ending in 2003 there were 2,103 claims for injury and death in B.C.'s energy and mining industries. Statistics for both are grouped, making it hard to know just what is attributable to the energy sector, but a goodly amount of it is. Payouts to injured workers and the survivors of those killed in the industry totalled $86.5 million over that same time period. In 55 cases, toxic substances, including sour gas, caused the injuries or deaths. And in at least one of those cases--a sour-gas poisoning in 2003--one unfortunate worker was injured so severely that he lost 280 days of work.

      In the deaths to befall both Ryans, investigating bodies like the WCB, the BC Coroners Service, and HRDC focused narrowly on a set of conditions that contributed to their deaths. In Ryan Strand's case, a switch in the off position and poorly machined equipment were considered major factors in the blowout that killed him. In Ryan Goertzen's case, the absence of an effective emergency-evacuation plan was of obvious interest to HRDC and the coroners service. The coroner also noted that HRDC was to inspect employers every 12 to 36 months, but no record of an inspection was found for the previous 12 years.

      These details are clearly of concern to Penny Goertzen and Trudy Strand. But the two women are much more disturbed by the bigger questions underlying their sons' deaths. How is it that young people can work 19 hours a day with equipment containing substances that can kill them and their fellow workers? How is it that a young man can be sent on his own at night to fix a potentially deadly problem at a well that had previously come dangerously close to claiming the life of another man?

      "I have real concerns about what's going on up there," Trudy said from her home in Calgary, a home, oddly enough, in a subdivision near where Compton Petroleum Corp. has proposed to drill as many as six sour-gas wells in close proximity to 250,000 residents. "We have no information to tell us they're doing anything to make it safer for young people. But young people keep flocking to those jobs because they're good-paying. I mean, these are not $8-an-hour jobs. They're 14, 15, 20 bucks an hour and higher. But the lure of money blinds people to the dangers. Ryan shouldn't have been working alone that night. Nobody should."

      It's a sentiment shared by Kirby Purnell, who trains fellow union employees on sour-gas safety issues. Purnell said that in the contract world, where the vast majority of workers in the energy patch are employed, the pressure to cut costs is relentless. As a result, people get placed in "work alone" situations, where death or serious injury is almost certain to result when things go wrong.

      LISTENING TO STRAND and Purnell reminded me of another incident 22 years ago, when I was in my second year at the University of Toronto. Elmer Krista--Bob to his friends--was a popular chemical-engineering student. Along with four dozen other students, we shared the same floor in a large residence. In the spring, Bob interviewed for and landed a job with Petro-Canada in Alberta.

      He was excited at the prospect of learning firsthand what life was like in the energy patch and jumped at the opportunity to work for $8.44 at the company's Fox Creek operations. Less than six weeks after commencing work in May 1982, Bob was one of three young men changing a filter at a local gas plant when an "undetected build-up of gas pressure" caused a rupture in a gas line. In the ensuing inferno, he received burns to 90 percent of his body.

      Bob died a few days later in a Calgary hospital, surrounded by his mother, father, and brother, Rayner, who was particularly distressed when they had to cut Bob's sides open to ease his body's swelling and allow him to keep breathing.

      Like others, I remember Bob's irrepressible smile and the sight of him walking down the halls of our residence, his broad shoulders often hidden behind a striped rugby shirt. It was a game he loved and one that his former teammates at the Midland Bulls Rugby Club no doubt played with bittersweet feelings a year after his death when they took to the field to play Owen Sound in the first annual Bob Krista Memorial Trophy game.

      Bob entered a world whose dangers he never truly comprehended. Many other lambs have gone to the slaughter since--the price paid for our relentless pursuit of a dangerous gas, locked deep in the ground where people like Moe Holman say it ought to stay.