Last month, Executive Director Jessica Clogg and I traveled to Ft. St. John to present on regional strategic environmental assessment at a conference called “What’s the Drill on Gas?” hosted by the Treaty 8 Tribal Association (T8TA). The gathering was attended by Chiefs, Elders, and community members from all nations of the T8TA. The purpose was to help delegates understand the cumulative effects of natural gas resource development within their territory and to provide a structured forum to explore innovative solutions to help better manage cumulative effects.
One of the most powerful moments of the conference occurred when an Elder stood up and told us about the impact that a gas leak from a well near her hunting cabin is having on her family. Because of the leak and the potential health risks it posed, this Elder had been advised by authorities to minimize the time she spent at her hunting cabin. The situation was deeply painful to her because she felt it was critically important to take her grand-children and great-grandchildren out onto the land to teach them to hunt and to skin animals, as well as to pass on stories and knowledge and spend time together. She was worried what the health impacts to herself and her family might be if they continued to spend time at the hunting cabin. “How am I supposed to enjoy myself with my grandchildren,” she asked us, “knowing that there’s poison leaking out next to us?”
Treaty 8 territory which covers 279, 000 square km in BC is dotted with tens of thousands of oil and gas wells, and criss-crossed by pipelines, seismic lines and access roads. There are approximately 30, 000 gas wells in BC, and the vast majority of these are located in the northeast in Treaty 8. Civil engineer Antonio Chulve presented at the conference that at any given time, 10% of gas wells leak, which means approximately 3, 000 leaking gas wells in our province at any given moment.
The health impacts of oil and gas development in BC are contentious. A study released last month into the health risks associated with the oil and gas industry concluded that there is a low probability of adverse effects from exposure to contaminants. However, a number of critics have challenged the report on the basis that too much remains unknown about long-term health impacts. For example, Calvin Sandborn (legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria) pointed out in an interview with the Globe and Mail that “The health impacts of fracking have not been well studied and yet we have a BC study coming out and saying there’s low risk.”
Many of the T8TA members attending the conference expressed fears for their health in connection with the intensive development occurring on their territory. For example, the Elder whose hunting cabin was located close to a leaking gas well stated that she had lost many relatives to cancer and that she believed “All the sickness ... it’s from the gas.”
In a presentation on air quality and health at the conference, Dr. Judi Kryzyzanowski reported that Treaty 8 territory in BC has more respiratory-illnesses and respiratory-illness related fatalities than any other part of the province. However, she also stated while possible, causation between these statistics and oil and gas development has not been established.
In addition to concerns about the physical health impacts of oil and gas development, conference participants also identified a number of mental health concerns. For example, the Elder who wanted to bring her grandchildren and great-grandchildren out on the land to her hunting cabin, and was prevented from doing so as result of the leaking well, said that she worried that the younger generation was being hurt by all the development. “Kids cant go out anywhere like used to be,” she told us. “The stuck in the little reserve.” She expressed her concern that alcohol and drug use was stepping into fill the void for youth lacking in opportunity to be out on the land where they could gain practical skills, learn cultural knowledge, build confidence, and be more connected to families and ancestors. Other participants at the conference also expressed anxiety, frustration and sadness over being able to hunt and trap less, seeing animals displaced from the land, and witnessing the landscape being rapidly transformed by oil and gas development.
Photo courtesy of Treaty 8 Tribal Association
In response to member concerns over what is happening to the land as a result of intensive oil and gas activity in combination with other forms of development (such as forestry, mining and dams), the T8TA is proposing the implementation of a regional strategic environmental assessment (R-SEA) process to consider the “big picture” of the cumulative impacts of development. This process would involve T8TA working collaboratively with the provincial and federal government as partners and resource owners to develop an approach to environmental assessment that would promote sustainable economic development and ensure that treaty rights are protected.
At West Coast, we stand with T8TA, other First Nations and concerned citizens across the province in urging the province to implement a process to effectively assess the “big picture” of the cumulative impacts of resource development across the province. We were asked last month to share our thoughts on what shape R-SEA might take with T8TA members at the “What’s the Drill on Gas?” conference. We will be returning to Ft. St. John and Chetwynd on May 12th and May 13th to run dialogue sessions open to the public to talk further about cumulative effects and R-SEA. We are looking forward to having the chance to talk further with residents from the region about what people value, what their concerns are, and what kind of future people want to build for their communities.
For more information about the dialogue sessions West Coast is hosting in Ft. St John and Chetwynd on May 12 and May 13, or to register, please contact Staff Counsel Hannah Askew at firstname.lastname@example.org.