BUSINESS

Oil and gas industry has low impact on health in northeastern B.C.: report

03/26/2015 06:39 EDT | Updated 05/26/2015 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - Health risks associated with oil-and-gas activity in northeastern British Columbia are low, according to a newly released report from the provincial Health Ministry.

Health Minister Terry Lake said Thursday the report concludes that existing regulations protect public health. But it also makes 14 recommendations, including improvements to emergency planning zones, groundwater testing and air quality objectives.

"Protecting the health and safety of British Columbians is one of our government's top priorities, and that's why we undertook this comprehensive study," Lake told reporters on a conference call.

"After careful review and analysis, the study found that the risk to human health from the emissions from oil-and-gas activities in the northeast remains low."

Intrinsik Environmental Sciences Inc. conducted the research, which represents the final phase of an evaluation of human-health risks related to the oil-and-gas industry.

The first phase released in 2012 detailed the concerns of residents who believed their health problems — including asthma, bronchitis, sinus issues and cancer — were linked to industry activities like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The report released Thursday was meant to assess whether these concerns were scientifically valid. It covered air emissions from gas-processing plants and production facilities, as well as related industries, transportation, and community sources.

But West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson called the report "embarrassing," saying the investigation was too narrow and designed to support industry expansion.

"They did a report so that they could stand up and say, 'Everything's good in northeastern B.C., there are no health issues,'" he said. "People have to look at that report and ask the questions of, 'What didn't they look at?'"

Willson said his band members still have significant concerns about high rates of cancer in the community, and the nation is considering commissioning an independent third-party review.

The ministry has come under fire for delaying the report's release. It was complete in November, but Lake said various government departments needed to review it first.

Independent member of the legislature Vicki Huntington said the government refused her requests in recent months to see the report or its raw data, telling her the information could harm the province's "financial interests."

"Data is data. There should be absolutely no fear in releasing it so that independent individuals and scientists can take a look at it," she said in an interview shortly before the report's release.

Caitlyn Vernon, campaigns director at Sierra Club B.C., said evidence exists showing fracking has "serious health impacts," from chemicals pumped underground and air-quality effects from gas flaring.

"I don't see how it's possible to reconcile the government's proposed plans to massively increase this industry, while maintaining the health of British Columbians," she said.

Among the report's 14 recommendations are baseline, pre-drilling groundwater testing requirements, and updated tools to calculate emergency planning zones. Another recommendation is to review and update the province's ambient air quality objectives.

Lake said the recommendations have been shared with the appropriate ministries or organizations and will be acted upon.

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.