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Addressing Community Exposure to Hydrogen Sulfide in the Saskatchewan Oilpatch: Interdisciplinary Investigations as a Lever to Expose Industrial Risk

Addressing Community Exposure to Hydrogen Sulfide in the Saskatchewan Oilpatch: Interdisciplinary Investigations as a Lever to Expose Industrial Risk

Written by: Garance Malivel
Published in: Outstanding Papers - Year: 2019
Book Line: Vol. 25 No. 14 ISSN 1702-3548

How can communities from poorly regulated industrial regions assess their exposure to environmental contaminants? And what resources could their collaboration with interdisciplinary research groups provide to address the environmental health risks they are exposed to? A corrosive neurotoxic gas, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is produced by the bacterial degradation of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Characterized by a strong rotten-egg smell, it can be released through industrial processes like oil and gas extraction, sewage treatment, paper production, and hog farming. In the fall of 2017, several news articles published in Global News, the National Observer, and the Toronto Star, alerted readers to hazardous levels of H2S emissions from oil and gas facilities in southeast Saskatchewan. Several incidents involving H2S were also reported—including the death in 2014 of a worker from a local oil company. If H2S has been recognized as a major workplace hazard, it remains poorly monitored and regulated in residential areas affected by fugitive emissions. In fossil fuel producing regions, this concern has been growing with the development of oil and gas enhanced recovery techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing, that can contribute to H2S proliferation. Why is community exposure to H2S exposure so poorly prevented, while an increasing number of people live near oil and gas facilities? And why, despite being aware of significant exposure risks, has the Saskatchewan
Government remained mostly silent on the issue and failed to take binding action?

This paper explores the interdisciplinary collaboration between an investigative media consortium, The Price of Oil, a team of social and data scientists, the Wylie Lab at Northeastern University in Boston, and a community group to assess residents’ exposure to H2S in southeast Saskatchewan. While The Price of Oil conducted extensive research, interviews, and Freedom of Information requests, the Wylie Lab developed with several families an experimental air monitoring study to detect H2S around their living place. Conceived as a low-cost method to address the lack of accessible H2S monitoring instruments and provide preliminary data on exposure to corrosive gases, the testing kit uses samples of photographic paper that darken when reacting with sulfur gases. The findings from the interdisciplinary investigation have been reported in two series of news articles, published by The Price of Oil in national media outlets in October 2017 and October 2018.

To analyze this collaboration and the environmental health risks it addresses, I first examine the conditions of production of H2S, and the ways in which the economic and regulatory orientations of the Saskatchewan Government have contributed to the creation of exposure risk. I then evaluate the resources that interdisciplinary investigations can offer to expose such environmental health risks, and to make them graspable through counter-narratives and what I call “operative data”. Finally, based on the preliminary outcomes of the investigation conducted in southeast Saskatchewan, I highlight the potential of such collaborations to consolidate community capacity, and to trigger greater public and corporate accountability mechanisms.