Blueberry River First Nations launches $7.5 million lawsuit against sour gas development

By LLOYD DOLHA*

Located in the heart of the booming oil and gas fields of northeastern British Columbia, the Blueberry River First Nation has filed a $7.5 million lawsuit against the province and the Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., seeking damages over gas-related illnesses suffered by local residents and a permanent injunction against all development and production activities within ten kilometres of their reserve.

"Our community lives in the shadow of gas wells and flares and now two-thirds of our land is unsafe to live on," said Blueberry River Chief Malcolm Apsassin, at a press conference in Vancouver last October 20.

Apsassin said that his people suffer from a number of sicknesses and live in constant fear of the effects of the natural gas wells that encircle their community of 350 people located some 80 kilometres north of Fort St. John.

"We must be able to hunt and fish and live on our land again, so we want no oil and gas [activities] within ten kilometres," added Apsassin.

The Blueberry First Nation's traditional way of life, largely of trapping and ranching, has been hindered by resource development.

Surrounded by wells which produce and release quantities of hydrogen-sulphide "sour" gas, the lawsuit will demonstrate that British Columbia, which asserts legislative jurisdiction over all aspects of oil and gas development through the BC Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), and CNRL, who have significant operations in the vicinity of the reserve, have directly impacted the use and nature of the reserve.

New report on sour gas In Alberta, a new study prepared with funding from the Ministry of the Environment suggests that there is a lot that even scientists don't know about the toxic effects of sour gas.

The study, an examination of scientific literature, media reports personal accounts and reports from a number of institutions and research boards, says that closing the knowledge gap should be a priority.

"There are many examples that hydrogen sulphide should be regarded as a broad-spectrum toxicant and that repeated exposure may result in cumulative effects on many organs systems such as the brain, lung and heart," states the report, prepared by University of Calgary researchers Sheldon Roth and Verona Goodwin.

Robert Coppock, a member of the American Board of Toxicology, agreed with the finding of the report that there is a need to know more.

He noted that there are more than 6,000 chemicals in sour gas, making it much different from pure hydrogen sulphide.

Coppock said that very little is known about the interactions of hydrogen sulphide with some of these other chemicals; however, he noted that carbon sulphide, which has been found in sour gas, is well known for its effects on the reproduction and endocrine systems.

Hydrogen sulphide is very foul smelling but can very quickly paralyze the sense of smell and can overcome the victim and eventually cause death. Therefore, smell cannot be relied upon to provide warnings of this treacherous gas.

It is also an irritant of mucous membranes including the eyes and respiratory tract.

The move comes after a long history of problems between the band and the province over oil and gas development around the reserve at the cost of the band.

In 1979, the reserve experienced a massive release of hydrogen sulphide, causing community members to flee for their lives. The major leak forced the evacuation and rebuilding of the reserve.

Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said that there is a growing pattern of readiness on behalf of the Campbell government to grossly violate the rights of First Nations in the pursuit of an economic agenda that will create a "nightmare of litigation".

"BC will not have the economic certainty of collecting billions of dollars in revenue unless they reach an accommodation with First Nations through honest and honourable good faith negotiations".

*First Nations Drum, Winter 2003



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