Oil, gas and the environment produce a potent mixture in Peace River country

BRIAN BERGMAN February 8 1999


Oil, gas and the environment produce a potent mixture in Peace River country

BRIAN BERGMAN February 8 1999




Oil, gas and the environment produce a potent mixture in Peace River country


With her long greying hair and gentle smile, Mamie Ludwig has a maternal bearing befitting a woman who has given birth to 11 children and is now helping to raise 15 grandchildren. It is an image quite at odds with that of her now infamous husband, Wiebo, who looks and often sounds like an Old Testament prophet brought back to smite the unrighteous. But with Wiebo in jail last week after being charged with allegedly helping to orchestrate the latest salvos in an eco-terrorist campaign against northern Alberta’s oil and gas industry, it was left to Mamie to defend the family cause—and she did so with a forcefulness that confirmed appearances can be deceiving. “If you see someone about to rape your daughter or kill your kids, you have to do something to stop them,” she told Maclean’s as she sat near the head of a long, sun-drenched kitchen table surrounded by a dozen family members. ‘You try to stop them with reasonable force and the least amount of damage possible.”

Such rhetoric is common these days in the Peace River region of northwestern Alberta, an area that has been rocked by more than 160 incidents of vandalism, shootings and bombings directed at the oilpatch over the past 2% years. And the brash statements are not restricted to the Ludwigs, a sprawling clan who live in deliberate isolation on a quarter-section of land known as the Trickle Creek farm, near Hythe, Alta., 550 km northwest of Edmonton and 40 km east of Alberta’s border with British Columbia. Talk of sabotage and guerrilla warfare trips easily off the tongues of local farmers, businessmen and oilpatch workers. It all seems slightly surreal in what was, until quite recently, just another quiet corner of rural Canada, the sort of place where everyone knew their neighbours—

and thought they knew their neighbours’ business. Now, they are not so sure. “When you go to church, you don’t know if the guy sitting next to you is an eco-terrorist or what,” says Alex McDonald, who runs a grain farm near Grande Prairie, the retail and service hub for the Peace River region. ‘You just don’t know.”

The sense of intrigue only deepened late last week during a court hearing in Edmonton to consider whether Wiebo Ludwig and Richard Boonstra, whose family also lives at Trickle Creek, should be granted bail. The two men were charged on Jan. 15 with nine counts of conspiracy and mischief, including destroying property, between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, 1998. A provincial court judge in Grande Prairie had earlier denied them bail, citing, among other' things, the potential danger they posed to society. But during last week’s hearing, Crown prosecutor Steven Koval confirmed defence allegations that the RCMP and the Calgarybased Alberta Energy Company had conspired to blow up a shack at a gas well on Oct. 14 in the Hythe area in a bid to help a police informant establish his credibility with the alleged eco-terrorists. The AEC, which had loudly denounced earlier attacks on its facilities, acknowledged it took part in the covert action, dubbed Operation Cabriolet. “When you are asked to co-operate by the RCMP in the conduct of their investigation, you co-operate,” said Dick Wilson, the company’s public affairs director.

Despite those revelations, Ludwig and Boonstra were again denied bail. Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Paul Belzil said he was “extremely concerned” by threatening comments Ludwig has made to the media—including one in which he mused aloud about slitting the throat of AEC president Gwyn Morgan. Mamie Ludwig, who attended the court hearing, said it simply proved that the oil industry and the justice system were out to get her husband. “He’s a political prisoner, that’s what I call him,” she said. But among the Ludwigs’ closest neighbours there was palpable relief that the bombing suspects remained in custody. “If they got out, it would be a scary thing for us, because Wiebo would have been mad,” says Gisela Everton, who lives with her husband, Rob, and their four young children on a grain farm two kilometres east of the Ludwigs’ house. Adds Rob: ‘We shouldn’t feel threatened in our homes, our own backyard—in Canada, that’s just not right.”

The drama unfolding in northwestern Alberta is just the latest—if the most extreme—example of the kind of tensions that have long festered between the province’s politically influential oil and gas industry and many of the landowners and residents who live in close proximity to production sites. One keen source of friction is the industry practice of flaring, whereby unwanted natural gas is burned off. A recent Alberta Research Council study found that over 250 chemical compounds may be released when gas is flared, including known carcinogens such as benzene. The Ludwigs blame flaring, as well as leaks from nearby sour gas wells (those containing potentially lethal hydrogen sulphide), for a wide range of afflictions at the family farm, including three miscarriages and a stillborn child.

While those claims remain unproven, environmentalists point out that, given the rapid pace of oil and gas development in northwestern Alberta, it would not be surprising if some health problems—including rashes, respiratory ailments and even cancer—followed in its wake. Observes Rob Macintosh, policy director of the Pembina Institute, a respected oil industry watchdog group based in Drayton Valley, Alta.: “Look, I’m in no way condoning violence as a way of advocating policy change, but these people have some very legitimate complaints.”

There is little doubt that the oil and gas industry has radically transformed the Peace River region. A mixture of boreal forest and grassland, the area was one of Canada’s last frontiers, where three generations ago hardy homesteaders staked out some of the continent’s northernmost grain-growing farms and cattle ranches. By the late 1980s, it became clear that those same gently rolling farmlands harboured vast pools of natural gas. Resource exploration mushroomed, with oil and gas wells, flare stacks, processing plants and pipelines blanketing the landscape. Tanker trucks now roar down rural roads where the biggest traffic threat used to be the occasional meandering cultivator. And many younger farmers, discouraged by low commodity prices and perennially fickle weather, have abandoned the fields for more lucrative and secure jobs in the oilpatch.

Dennis Ganzeveld, a recently retired farmer from La Glace, about 50 km northwest of Grande Prairie, has witnessed the changes firsthand. “It used to be so quiet,” says Ganzeveld, whose mother’s family first arrived in the Peace in 1913. “You could go onto your back step in the evening and enjoy it. Now, all of a sudden, there’s big trucks racing by, heavy equipment being moved and oil rigs running. It’s all changed so completely, and some of us just can’t quite accept it.”

One who certainly falls into that category is Wiebo Ludwig. The Dutch-born former preacher arrived in the area along with

Boonstra and their respective families in 1985. For Ludwig, it was a time of considerable personal and professional turmoil. Six years earlier, he had taken over a Christian Reformed church in Goderich, Ont. He quickly antagonized many in his congregation with his wrathful sermons and penchant for excommunicating those who disagreed with him. In 1983, Ludwig lost his licence to preach in the Christian Reformed Church and responded by forming his own congregation, known as the Church of Our Shepherd King. By the following year, he had again alienated most of his followers, with the notable exception of the ever-loyal Boonstras.

With the purchase of the farm near Hythe, which they dubbed Trickle Creek, the Ludwigs and the Boonstras had hoped to start anew. Appalled at what they saw as the chaos and immorality of modern society, they determined to live apart from it as much as possible in what Mamie Ludwig describes as an attempt to “re-establish the basic Christian family,” with Wiebo as their patriarch. Self-sufficiency was another goal: the families raise goats for milk, keep bees for honey and wax, and grow grains, vegetables, fruits and herbs for sustenance.

For the farming families who live nearby, the newcomers were an immediate source of curiosity—and gossip. The women at Trickle Creek all wear colourful kerchiefs on their heads, a biblical tradition that signals submission to their husbands. The Ludwigs’ eldest sons, Ben, Bo and Fritz, married the Boonstras’ eldest daughters, Kara, Dania

and Renée, and now have families of their own. The younger children and the grandchildren are all homeschooled to shield them from what Wiebo Ludwig views as the venality of the public education system.

What little contact his neighbours did have with the Ludwigs in the early days proved unsettling. Rob Everton recalls Wiebo Ludwig dropping by when he needed to pull a vehicle out of the ditch or wanted help with the Ludwigs’ grain crops. The encounters were abrupt and rarely pleasant. “He’s very smart, but basically he’s a bully,” says Everton. “He relishes the fact that he can intimidate you.” Ludwig’s obstinate side came to the fore as the drilling drew closer to home. When the two families bought the Trickle Creek property, there was only one gas well nearby; now there are 10, most of them containing sour gas. Initially, Ludwig tried to fight through the normal channels, petitioning provincial regulators, police and politicians. After that failed, he began to get into public shouting matches with oil company officials and to warn local operators darkly that their wells could become targets of violent attacks.

Starting in 1996, that is exactly what happened. It began, innocuously enough, with nails strewn on remote roads on land leased to oil companies. The incidents quickly escalated, however, with power lines being chainsawed and rifle shots fired through the offices of two gas plants near Hythe. Last summer, the bombs started to erupt. Over the August holiday weekend, explosions occurred at a pair of Alberta Energy Company gas wells near Trickle Creek, one of which resulted in sour gas leaking into the air, forcing several households to evacuate. On Aug. 24, another bomb went off at a Suncor Energy Inc. well near Hinton, 200 km southeast of Hythe.

The Hinton explosion occurred just three days after Ludwig’s daughter-in-law, Renée, suffered a stillbirth—an event the family videotaped to document its cause. Wiebo and Mamie Ludwig, their son, Wiebo Jr., and Richard Boonstra were charged with mischief endangering life in relation to the bombing. The charges were dropped two weeks later for lack of evidence.

The summertime bombings served to galvanize public opinion in Peace country.

Ex-farmer Ganzeveld, who is highly regarded by many residents for his efforts to mediate disputes between oil companies and landowners, has had several conversations with Wiebo Ludwig over the years.

“He has a lot of valid concerns,” says Ganzeveld, adding that many people are concerned about sour gas emissions fouling the area’s water and air and are frustrated by the lack of response from industry and the provincial government. “This Ludwig fellow, he works on your mind,” says Ganzeveld. “He’s very convincing. He even had me going—until the bombing started.

It’s these tactics that scare the community, because we never know what is going to be hit next.”

The bombings also provoked Ludwig’s closest neighbours to publicly disassociate themselves from his cause. The Evertons circulated a letter, signed by all but one of the 21 families in the vicinity of the Trickle Creek farm. It stated that none of them had experienced the grievous health problems that Ludwig attributed to the oil and gas industry. A second petition, signed by more than 1,000 Peace residents, called on Alberta Justice Minister Jon Havelock to do more to stop the bombings. The government responded with new funding and the promise of additional RCMP investigators. Still, violence continued to occur. In addition to the shack blown up by the RCMP on Oct. 14—an action that among some observers evoked the force’s dirty tricks campaign of the late 1960s and early 1970s against Quebec separatists—a gravel road leading to a Union Pacific Resources Inc. gas site near Hythe was bombed in late November.

The randomness of the vandalism and the bombings has taken the greatest emotional toll on those who work in the Peace River oilpatch. Companies have hired extra security guards and insist that employees remain in constant radio communication when inspecting remote well sites. Anxious telephone calls are exchanged several times a day between field-workers and their spouses; if either party is not where they said they would be at a given time, the authorities are notified. “There’s a level of frustration about why we have to put up with this,” says John

An RCMP bombing added another twist

Lieverse, production co-ordinator at the Union Pacific gas plant near Hythe. ‘We’re trained to deal with the inherent dangers of working with natural gas. But there’s no amount of training that will help when you’re dealing with this kind of sabotage.” For all of that, others in the area share the Ludwigs’ concerns. Paul Gatien, a beekeeper from Beaverlodge, notes that, to date, no one has been hurt in any of the Peace River oilfield incidents. “It’s all been property damage,” he says. “That’s just stuff and it can be replaced. What worries me more is the long-term risk of all this oil and gas development on people and other living things.” That worry is shared by Henry Pirker, a 70-year-old local rancher, who says that the area’s alfalfa, aspen and poplars have all been seriously degraded in recent years. As for the decision by some to resort to violence, Pirker says, “I am too old to even think of doing something like that. But I can well imagine if your livelihood is up against the wall, this is what you’d do. Guerrilla wars have been started for less.”

For their part, the Ludwigs admit to nothing. During the course of a two-hour interview with Maclean’s at the Trickle Creek farm last week, family members repeatedly skated around the issue of who was responsible for the recent violence. It was pointed out that 28-year-old Ben Ludwig was convicted of vandalizing a well site in 1997. “I don’t take credit for doing it,” responded Ben, who, with his wavy red hair and beard, bears a strong resemblance to his father. Does that mean he is innocent? “I take no credit for it,” repeats Ben. When they are asked if any members of the household are responsible for the eco-terrorist acts, 26-year-old Fritz Ludwig chimes in: “We don’t like to say no because we like to maintain the mystery. We’re getting a lot of mileage out of it.”

In fact, the Peace River bombings have brought attention to the potential dangers of massive oil and gas development in a way that no amount of earlier, more peaceful

0 protests managed to do. A spectacular 1982 well blowout at an Amoco Canada sour gas g well near Drayton Valley resulted in a 68-day S bonfire that spewed poisonous hydrogen g sulphide into the air. While some local ^ ranchers received compensation for ailing

1 cattle, the company refused to apologize for I the incident and the provincial government § ignored residents’ demands for full-scale

health studies. More recently, Wayne Johnston, a farmer from Sundre, Alta., complained that many of his cattle fell sick and died following a 1994 sour gas leak. An Alberta Agriculture study released in November confirmed that the leak appeared to affect the cattle’s health.

The oil industry has taken some steps to try to allay public anxiety about possible health hazards—concerns that were only heightened last week after what appeared to be an accidental explosion at a gas plant in Taylor, B.C., just across the border from Hythe, injured 11 workers and forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents. Late last year, the Calgary-based Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers agreed to reduce the practice of flaring by 25 per cent by the end of 2001. But CAPP president David Manning says it did so for “commercial and public relations reasons,” and not because of any supposed health risks. “There are no studies that we or anyone else has done that have demonstrated any link between flaring and human or animal health,” says Manning. And while the larger environmental debate rages on, the oilfield terrorism has left Peace River residents with more immediate concerns. “We hope this will stop now, but we can’t be too optimistic,” says Grande Prairie Mayor Gord Graydon. In a community already on edge, that is a widely held point of view. □