A bout 100 spectators watched silently last week as videotaped replays of a furious gas blowout
flickered on 10 television monitors in the Royal Canadian Legion hall in Drayton Valley, a small town 130 km southwest of Edmonton. On the screens, an hour-long documentary showed the
poisonous blowout at nearby Lodgepole, Alta., which enveloped the region in sour natural gas for 68 days last fall and killed two men. The well-produced tape was the opening of Amoco Canada Petroleum Co. Ltd.’s defence at a public inquiry into the cause and effects on the local population of the incident. It depicted the explosion as an accident which occurred when a drill rig searching for oil hit high-pressure sour gas on Oct. 17, 1982. The column of gas that shot out of the hole alternately burned or leaked
poisonous fumes until workers finally capped the flaming well two days before Christmas. “Industrial accidents happen,” said Doug Paulson, the narrator of the tape.
Amoco says that it acted “safely, prudently and conscientiously,” but the Pembina Area Sour Gas Exposures Committee disagrees. The group of 168 local residents is expected to provide the chief opposition to Amoco during the hearing, which could last seven weeks. After the group’s formation last December, it criticized Amoco’s evacuation plans during the incident. It also is armed with a study saying that 76 per cent of the people living near the leaking well felt they suffered from health problems related to the spewing gas.
A six-man panel from Alberta’s powerful Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), which oversees oil and gas development in the province, is hearing the evidence in a cinder-block legion hall. Their immediate concern is the amount of hydrogen sulphide spewed into the air, and a second set of hearings, scheduled for late January in Calgary, will try to find ways to prevent future incidents.
During his presentation, Amoco President Norman Rubash promised that experts testifying on hydrogen sulphide, the toxic, foul-smelling component of sour gas, would “alleviate public anxiety” about the blowout. To that end, Amoco’s videotape attributed much of the illness experienced during the 68 days of the blowout to a viral flu raging at the time. Moreover, the company charged that biased, misinformed and erroneous reporting had caused much of the anxiety and confusion that prevailed at the time.
“It was scary,” Lodgepole resident Olga Baker told Maclean's. “The stink was really bad. We had headaches, dizziness and sore throats. If they had told us what was happening, it might not have been so bad, but they didn’t tell us anything.”
As well as providing a $60,000 grant to the Pembina committee for its presentation, the ERCB is in the awkward position of judging its own actions: the board has the final responsibility for the handling of the incident. Albertans are accustomed to the paradox. Senior government officials have, until recenL ly, soft-pedalled concerns raised over sour gas because of the industry’s importance to Alberta. That leaves the panel meeting in the Drayton Valley Legion hall with the delicate job of keeping a crucial industry prosperous, while making it safer and healthier.
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