Story of an unreported spill

Central Alberta’s small town, Bashaw, conveniently located at almost equal distance to three major towns

Central Alberta’s small town, Bashaw, conveniently located at almost equal distance to three major towns, Camrose, Ponoka and Stettler with a lot of family, community and business links to all three, made it to provincial headlines last week.

The story was about an advisory issued by Alberta Health Services (AHS), warning people who might have got in contact with frac sand, spilled within Bashaw town limits, to be careful against the health hazards it may pose.

Frac sand is a kind of industrial material used in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking in short, a process for producing oil or gas by bombarding the rocks underground with highly pressurized water and sand to allow for the release of the energy raw materials to be extracted, processed and sold.

Frac sand is considered toxic and it could cause health problems.

But the most interesting part of the story was not the AHS advisory released to the media, it was how the AHS had got the information about the spill.

An AHS official said they had come to know about the spill of the frac sand within Bashaw town limits only thanks to the sensitivity of a “concerned citizen” whose identity we have yet to know. And it turns out this concerned citizen informed AHS about a full month after the spill had occurred.

Later as reporters dug into the details, officials disclosed that the amount that spilled was 580 tonnes and that the spill had happened on June 17.

Now here is the question: Why were all three levels of government, municipal, provincial and federal, completely quiet until the AHS advisory showed up on the computer screens of journalists?

The Bashaw mayor, describing the spill as an “unfortunate accident,” said in an interview that the area where the spill occurred was private property. “I am sure they are doing their part,” she added. The question is whether the municipality had done their part. If the current legislation allows municipalities to lay down ground rules as to whether residents can or cannot feed chicken in their backyard or as to how pets should be taken care of, it must certainly allow for a town council to issue at least a warning to its citizens before a full month passes over a dangerous spill. But in this case, apparently the matter was not perceived serious enough.

As to provincial and federal governments, we should probably not be very surprised with the level of indifference and negligence they demonstrate towards the environmental damage that such a spill might cause and it should be admitted that, from an environmental standpoint, this was not a seriously dangerous situation.

But we should all be shocked and protesting against the indifference of all levels of government from a standpoint of respect, or lack thereof, to human health.

I was a junior reporter when the Chernobyl disaster struck back in 1986 and the government of the then Soviet state was condemned throughout the world for covering up the nuclear accident. Here I am not, of course, comparing the dimensions of the two incidents, but I am comparing the understanding behind the urge to keep both incidents under the lid of secrecy.

The Soviet leadership at the time had an ideological motive to keep the incident secret, not to be seen as having blundered a major technological process in which they always claimed to be more successful than their western rivals. But what was the motive in Bashaw? Was it the concern that visitors could be scared away at the height of the tourist season? Or was it that the town was asked to keep the spill from being publicized and by who? Which party was at fault in the incident, was it the storage that went wrong? Is the provincial government imposing any fines either on the company owning the fracking sand or on the party responsible for the storage? Is the property owner also the owner of the storage facility, and what is their share of responsibility?

So there are quite a number of questions that can be justifiably asked in the aftermath of this incident, one of which may supersede others: For the last decade or so, we have almost got used to corporate interests, whether they are of big oil, energy, railway or agricultural conglomerates, being prioritized over environmental concerns. Have we now reached a point where human health/life also takes a back seat to corporations/commercial interests?

– Mustafa Eric