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British Columbia Oil and gas health risks low in northeast B.C., report finds

An example of an Encana fracking operation in Colorado in March 2013.

Brennan Linsley/The Canadian Press/AP

A long-awaited study into the health risks associated with the oil and gas industry in northeast British Columbia has concluded there is a low probability of adverse effects from exposure to contaminants.

The report, part of a larger study the B.C. government initiated nearly four years ago, was released Thursday by provincial Health Minister Terry Lake.

The findings were welcomed by industry, which has long been blamed for releasing contaminants that are harmful to human health, but critics remained doubtful, saying too much is still unknown about long-term effects.

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"It's a comprehensive report and I think it demonstrates that people who live and work in northeast B.C. shouldn't be concerned about the impact of the oil and gas industry on their health," said Geoff Morrison, manager of operations in B.C. for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

But Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, said he "remains skeptical" that the oil and gas industry isn't exposing people to health risks.

"You get this general statement [in the report] that there's a low health risk and I find that in striking contrast to the Council of Canadian Academies report [in May, 2014], which raised concerns," Mr. Sandborn said. "The health impacts of fracking have not been well studied and yet we have a B.C. study coming out and saying there's low risk."

Andrew Weaver, a Green Party MLA, said he thought the report was "very helpful" but noted it was hampered, as have been many other studies, by a lack of data in some areas.

"Where there was data they did not find risk, but I still have questions about water [pollution]," he said.

In its report, the Council of Canadian Academies says there is a lack of baseline data for groundwater in the vicinity of shale gas development. The B.C. study, which was done by Intrinsik Environmental Sciences Inc., also notes the lack of data in that area and recommends the government consider requiring baseline testing of ground water before gas wells are drilled.

Intrinsik looked at the health risks associated with an array of chemicals of potential concern (COPC) that can be released from gas processing plants, compressor stations, storage tanks and other sources.

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"Overall, long-term inhalation exposures to the COPC were predicted to be associated with a low potential for adverse health effects," the report states.

It says the release of some chemicals, such as formaldehyde, did occasionally exceed safe exposure limits, but "the rare nature" of such incidents meant adverse health impacts were unlikely.

The report recommends that the government update its setback provisions, which establish the minimum distance between oil and gas facilities and residences. It also calls for a review of the emergency planning zones, saying they "may not reflect current best available practices." And it calls for a stronger regulatory framework concerning venting and flaring.

Mr. Lake said the government received the report several months ago but wanted to review it thoroughly before releasing it. "Our government is committed to ensuring that the health of British Columbians is protected as we explore opportunities for economic and job growth throughout the province," he said in a statement.

Several studies have recently highlighted the environmental and health risks associated with "fracking," a relatively new technique used to extract gas by injecting sand, large volumes of water and various chemicals deep underground, to fracture shale deposits.

In December, New York state extended a ban on fracking after health commissioner Howard Zucker said a health impact study had concluded: "The potential risks are too great. In fact, they are not fully known."

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In February, the University of Queensland released the results of a review of more than 1,000 studies worldwide and reported that while a definite link between fracking and adverse health could not be made, "there is also no evidence to rule out such health impacts."

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