Radioactive oil and gas

(Originally published Calgary FFWD, December 9, 1999)

Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima are known as the Hibakusha.

In Alberta, survivors of the oil and gas industry should be called “The Lucky.” As oil and gas companies extract fossil fuels from deep beneath the surface of the Earth, they expose The Lucky to benzene, toluene, hydrogen sulfide and ionizing radiation.

Before Pincher Creek cowboy Darryl Vance died of cancer, he never expressed concern about ionizing radiation spewing from the Shell Waterton gas plant a few miles west of his home. Though he lived downwind his entire life, he never complained – complaining was not in his character. The walnut size tumor on his forearm was just one of those things he put up with. A cowboy poet who would perform for school children around Christmas time, Vance was a good man, but he was not one of The Lucky.

When contacted, people at Shell Canada’s health, safety and environment department were not willing to talk about radioactivity.

Should Vance have been concerned about ionizing radiation?

According to Dr. John W. Gofman, a medical doctor and former associate director of the Livermore National Laboratory, ionizing radiation causes biological damage “due to high-speed particles travelling through cells and unloading concentrated amounts of energy in unnatural places at random.”

As roughnecks punch thousands of wells through Alberta topsoil this year looking for pools of black gold, they release trillions of radioactive particles. When oil and gas companies operate wells, they flare a plethora of primary radionuclides, including radium-226 and 228, and radon gas into the air.

Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a Toronto epidemiologist and expert on the effects of radiation, outlines the reasons oil and gas radiation is dangerous to people.

“Radon is seven times heavier than air. It stays close to the ground. When it is ingested into the body it impacts the stem cells which produce blood cells.

“This can lead to bone cancer, leukemia and other serious health problems,” she says during a recent interview.

According to Bertell’s book No Immediate Danger: Prognosis For A Radioactive Earth, 1,000 rems will cause death from brain injury and swelling, 50-150 rems can cause spontaneous abortions or stillbirths. A rem (Roentgen Equivalent Man) is a measurement of radioactive dosage. It is not known how many rems are being emitted into Alberta’s air.

“To my knowledge there is not a regular monitoring program in place in Alberta,” says Jim Fujikawa, senior science specialist with the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board.

Without knowing specific radiation levels, duration of exposure and type of nuclide, the full harm to Albertans cannot be accurately determined.

Meeting Richard and Lois Boonstra for the first time, one notices the small protruding growths they both have on their faces. The stillborn livestock and human miscarriages on their northern Alberta farm have been well documented, but no one measured the amount of ionizing radiation they received at the height of the flaring period, prior to their troubles.

Richard is charged, along with Wiebo Ludwig, for conspiring to monkeywrench oil wells that surround their land. But the Boonstras have not been complaining about ionizing radiation lately. Like most rural folk, they’re focusing on completing the important work – in this case, Boonstra and Ludwig are currently raising money so they can defend themselves against an onslaught of criminal charges which they believe are politically motivated, triggered because of their vocal opposition to the oil and gas industry.

According to the Guidelines for the Handling of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials in Western Canada, a study of 24 Western Canada gas plants in the late 1980s found a substantial amount “of radon-222 and progeny passing through the plants, but little accumulation of radionuclides.” The expulsion of radionuclides may explain why people in the Pincher Creek area have complained of a litany of illnesses for decades.

“Ionizing radiation can cause changes in the chemical balance of cells. Some of those changes can result in cancer. In addition, by damaging the genetic material (DNA) contained in all cells of the body, ionizing radiation can cause harmful genetic mutations that can be passed on to future generations,” states a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet on the health effects of ionizing radiation.

But standard reference materials cannot predict how many bequerels (a quantitative measurement of radiation) it takes to cause cancer in a cowboy in Pincher Creek.

And Pincher Creek is not the only place in Alberta with cowboys. Allan Johnstone is a cowboy of a different stripe, a Beaverlodge resident and self-appointed oilpatch monitor.

Scouting local terrain using a radiation monitoring device, similar to a Geiger counter, Johnstone has stumbled across some very hot spots in the Grande Prairie region. He has found high levels of radiation around oil well pumps and storage batteries.

Radioactivity is known to accumulate in equipment as scale, and in sludge after oil, gas and water have been separated. This build up of radioactive material is causing problems for the industry.

“At the current time, oil and gas producers must keep radioactive sludge and scale on-site because there are no long-term disposal options,” says Gary Hughes, radiation specialist with Alberta Labour.

This growing problem of radioactive waste has led Johnstone to become fairly vocal. As a result of his activism, Johnstone believes, he has had his home viciously attacked on two recent occasions. – both times, windows were smashed as he and his family slept.

While the vandalism is being investigated by the RCMP, the continual injection of radiation into the atmosphere is largely being ignored.

Still, despite having his windows boarded up, Allan Johnstone considers himself one of The Lucky.

© J.J. Locke 1999

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