School children in northeast British Columbia are being put at risk because of the inadequate minimum setbacks required for wells or pipelines – even when they are pumping deadly sour gas – according to a new report from the University of Victoria.
Wells can be drilled within 100 meters of public places, including schools, and that raises important safety concerns, said Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the environmental law clinic at UVic.
School officials said they feel "comfortable" with existing safety practices, which include detailed warning and evacuation plans worked out with industry. But Mr. Sandborn said there is good reason to worry, because some oil and gas facilities are already dangerously close to schools, and the province's liquefied natural gas sector could soon drill another 6,000 to 10,000 wells in the region.
"Even without thousands of new gas wells, we aren't doing a very good job of safeguarding school children," he said. "It's an issue that hasn't been explored enough."
The report released on Thursday shows many schools in the Peace District are surrounded by oil and gas activity.
"There's intense development all around these schools … and a number of these schools have over 20 wells within 2,000 meters," said Mr. Sandborn.
In a letter to Premier Christy Clark, Mr. Sandborn urged the government to look at establishing a minimum setback distance of 1,500 meters for wells and pipelines containing sour gas, to require gas leak detection systems at schools, to regulate flaring more tightly and to use the emergency procedures of an Alberta school district in the Drayton Valley as a planning model for B.C.
Mr. Sandborn, who oversaw the research done by law student Jacqui McMorran, said the study suggests some B.C. schools' emergency protocols are not practical.
"In the past, when there have been emergencies, these response plans have fallen far short," he said. "In a sour gas leak, in 2008, the school went to their emergency response plan and they were told to use duct tape around their windows and doors."
He said some plans call on schools to have buses idling in parking lots when a gas leak alert is given, but to wait for an evacuation order before taking further action.
The report says the "greatest risk" associated with oil and gas development comes from the potential release of poisonous hydrogen sulfide, or sour gas, which is named for its rotten egg smell. Exposure to high concentrations can quickly lead to death.
"So, okay, if you've got a sour gas leak, a lethal gas that was used in WWI as a military gas, now we're going to start herding kindergartners onto a school bus?" Mr. Sandborn said.
Although no students have been injured by gas leaks, the report states there were 73 leaks in a recent five-year period, and over the past 30 years, 34 workers in B.C. and Alberta have died from sour gas accidents.
School officials and parents contacted in the Peace region said they have concerns, but largely feel children are safe.
"Our staff has done extensive work in conversation with oil and gas people, different companies. And they have the [emergency] protocol set up about well sites close to schools … we're pretty comfortable with it," said Richard Powell, chair of School District 59, Peace River South.
Stephen Petrucci, assistant superintendent and safe-schools co-ordinator of District 60, Peace River North, agreed, but added: "It's definitely not something we can be complacent about."
Valerie Rose, president of the Parent Advisory Council at Rolla Traditional School, 15 kilometres north of Dawson Creek, said oil and gas safety issues are raised several times a year.
The UVic study shows eight wells within 2,000 metres of the school.
"I know a lot of the Rolla parents are not that happy with them being that close to the school. They want buzzers in case there is a leak or something. They want a siren. ... We haven't managed to get that yet," she said.
Both Ms. Rose and Mr. Powell said the growing volume of industry traffic sharing country roads with school buses is also a worry.
"It's ridiculous because they all speed way too fast," Ms. Rose said.