Community under suspicion
after attacks on gas facilities

Police and security presence adds to residents’ frustration
after four bombings on EnCana installations

Laura Drake, Edmonton Journal, Jan. 11, 2009

After the first bombing, EnCana security trucks drove up and down the dark rural roads of northeastern British Columbia every night, headlights flashing into the windows of houses along the way.

Jake Hebert was driving home one night after a long stretch away for work. He was just about there when the security staff pulled him over. When asked what he was doing, he explained he was returning to the house he has lived in for 20 years.

“One was shining a light in my face and the other one was crawling under my truck,” Hebert recalled. “It was unbelievable.” Three months later, the fourth and most recent bomb targeted at EnCana’s natural gas equipment exploded only 300 metres from the Tomslake-area cabin where Hebert lives with his mother, Lisa Webster, and her husband Willy.

Tomslake, about 28 kilometres south of Dawson Creek, was previously known for being settled by Germans who fled Nazi persecution.

But on Oct. 12 last year, a two-metre blast crater was found under a pipeline south of the hamlet. Four days later, another bomb farther down the road cracked a pipeline and caused a small amount of gas to leak out.

A third wellhead was hit and leaked on Oct. 31. And last Sunday, a fourth bomb blew apart a wall of a shed that houses a sour gas pipe. The shed is just across the road from a home with two young children, causing RCMP to label the attacks as “increasingly violent.” The bombings have cast a pall over the community of several hundred people who live around Tomslake. Residents want desperately for the culprit to be caught, not only because of fears an explosion could trigger a fatal gas leak, but also to lift the cloud of suspicion that has fallen over them and their neighbours.

The cabin of thick, knotted logs where Lisa and Willy Webster live is only a few metres from the rural road that traverses the area.

“Now security will drive by and stop and look in the windows and it’s like, ‘What do you think we’re doing, building bombs at the kitchen table?’ ” Hebert said, his head nearly touching the roof as he leaned against a support beam in the old wooden house.

“They think we’re all criminals,” Willy added, his hands crossed over a half-completed word- search puzzle.

Hebert said one of his close friends, who attended a small sit-in last spring to protest the oil and gas operations, was among the first people to face harsh scrutiny from authorities.

“He finally just gave them DNA samples because he had enough,” Hebert said.

His friend, who told The Journal he would not be interviewed because he didn’t want any more intrusions into his life, is not the only resident whose innocence has been questioned because of objections to the oil and gas presence.

Jim and Jan Zacharias, who live several kilometres away from the Websters, heard their names were raised in connection with the attacks during some police interviews.

“The RCMP have been at our neighbours’ house, saying, ‘Wouldn’t those Zachariases be the kind of people to do this?’ They just laughed,” Jan said.

Jan and Jim live about a kilometre from the third bombing site. They moved to the Peace River district around 1976 as part of what Jan calls the “back to the land” movement of the time.

“We really embrace the small carbon footprint ideal, so maybe that makes it more jarring,” Jan said about the expansion of oil and gas activity around their home.

For about as long as the gas companies have been drilling, the couple has been agitating for better consideration of people living in the area.

“I’m not at all promoting stopping oil and gas completely. I have a car,” Jim said. “I’m not that naive. But surely you could only drill one well at a time.” While the Zachariases haven’t participated in any protests, they started a group called Citizens for Responsible Energy Development in the Peace. They have EnCana on speed dial. And they’re well known for their views on the industry, which has established a bigger presence in their lives in recent years.

Jim opens a map and spreads it on the dining room table as Jan moves about the kitchen, dressing some coleslaw with homemade yogurt.

Jim circles the location of his house, then counts the brightly coloured squares that mark the wells within five kilometres.

“Fifteen wells in less than five years,” he said. There could be up to 30 more installed over the next five. He points to one only an inch away on the map — marked as ECA0G b-57-G ACT — that was the target of the third bombing.

Despite their proximity to that explosion, Jan said the biggest impact of the bombings is the hassle from the RCMP, whose helicopters fly constantly overhead.

However, the couple said they will continue to voice their opposition to the oil and gas companies — even if it means appearing suspicious.

“When this bomb went off here, everyone was all ‘You must be scared, you must be (angry),’ ” Jim says.

“My concerns are the oil and gas, not the bomber. I’d rather he’d stop,” he says, trailing off.

“But at the same time, he’s the reason people are finally paying attention,” Jan says.

“I can absolutely understand the frustration.” Mystery continues to surround who is behind the attacks and why they are happening. The bombings are the most popular conversation topic between Tomslake and Dawson Creek, and everyone has their own theory on who it is, be it a radical environmentalist, a disgruntled land owner or an ex-oilfield employee.

The only clue to the bomber’s identity was a letter mailed at the beginning of October to local newspapers, and RCMP Sgt. Tim Shields said there is currently no prime suspect.

“We have spoken to hundreds of people as part of the investigation. We’ve knocked on the vast majority of the doors in Tomslake,” he said.

A big frustration, he said, are the few residents who refuse to co-operate with the RCMP for various reasons.

If anyone in the region supports the bomber, they aren’t speaking up. A significant sour gas leak could be fatal to nearby residents. The natural gas that flows through most of the pipes in the area contains deadly hydrogen sulphide.

At the same time, most people in the rural area also share at least a fraction of the bomber’s apparent discontent with the oil and gas industry.

Even the Zachariases and the Websters, who seem to have little else in common, long for the time when oil and gas didn’t exist in their backyard. The women in each household use the same example to describe life before the companies started seriously drilling.

“We used to see five or six vehicles a day and it would always be the neighbours. Now, no,” Lisa Webster said.

“It used to be, when someone was out on the road and they went by me, they were my neighbour. Now the people who drive by me are going to work,” Jan said.

“An EnCana rep told me for every well site, every time they drill, it’s 750 tanker trucks — 750 in, 750 out. And that doesn’t include pickup trucks.” Residents are also worried about possible health effects from the flares that light up the night sky.

“I think there are 37 wells within a five-kilometre radius from here. It’s like being in Skagway. The sky never goes dark,” Willy Webster said.

If it were up to he Zachariases or the Websters, the industry never would have come to the land where many people moved to get away from such intrusions. But as the Zachariases continue their opposition to the encroachment, the Websters have quietly accepted it. In December they signed a deal with EnCana for $8,000 a year that allows the company access to their land to drill six wells.

“They’re going to be there regardless of me saying yes or no. When you own only the top (45 centimetres) of your soil, you don’t really have much say,” Willy said, pointing out the company could have decided to do directional drilling under his land from his neighbour’s property.

“You’re going to have the noise, you’re going to have the problems, you’re just not going to have the money,” his wife added.

There had been three bombings before the Websters signed the papers with EnCana, yet the prospect of having six wells — all potential targets — near their house didn’t give them much pause.

“If something really happens, we don’t really need to worry about it,” Willy said, his wife finishing his thought.

“Yup, we won’t be here to talk about it.” That’s why if Willy had it his way, the bomber would never get a chance to tell his tale.

“If I find out who it is, they’re not going to trial. That’s just the way I feel,” he said.

Willy is not alone in his anger.

Tim Schram, a 44-year-old lifelong resident of the area and avid hunter, said lots of people feel the same way.

He said the oil and gas business has done wonders for the local economy, even if it has brought trouble.

“Dawson has never really seen oil and gas money. We’ve kind of sniffed it a bit. Finally, it’s set up here and the spinoff has been phenomenal,” said Schram, who owns a sporting goods store in Dawson Creek.

“But on the flip side, you get the rural guy who lives out there who has a flare stuck up out his back window. I know people who have moved out.

“I have a friend who’s got a ranch most people would kill for, but he’s also got wellheads and compressors in his backyard.” Even though hunters like him have been questioned just for being out in the bush, he hasn’t heard customers complain about security stops. Nor has he heard a word of support for the bomber.

“The local people, we just want to find the people who are responsible,” he said. “It’s just a basic public safety thing. It needs to come to an end.”