W5: Behind the pipeline bombings in northern B.C.
Published Saturday, January 23, 2010 7:46PM EST
The Peace River country is a vast region that straddles the border between northern eastern B.C. and northwestern Alberta. In recent years it has seen a dramatic shift from agriculture-based economies to gas and oil development.
This is especially true in British Columbia where natural gas is now the largest source of revenue for the province -- more than $4 billion in 2008 alone (the last year for which there are accurate statistics).
But this lucrative source of income for industry and government can be difficult for many of the people who live close to the gas wells and the infrastructure. And those two worlds collided in the Dawson Creek, B.C. area 15 months ago when someone started blowing up gas pipelines.
It started on Thanksgiving weekend, 2008 with a threatening letter. Written in childish script and mailed to EnCana Corporation and two small-town newspapers, the author demanded that oil giant Encana get out of the area around Tomslake, a small village south of Dawson Creek.
Dawson Creek News publisher Dan Przybylski said that at first he didn't take the threat too seriously. "First off you go okay, now we got a whacko in the area", he recalled.
But everyone took notice two days later when a bomb exploded on an EnCana sour gas riser -- a gas well. Explosions on sour gas wells are especially risky because sour gas contains lethal hydrogen sulfide and even small amounts are capable of causing health problems in people and livestock. A large leak could kill thousands.
It was the first of six bombings that still remain unsolved. The RCMP has treated this as a case of domestic terrorism. RCMP Inspector Tim Shields said, "We know with certainty that human lives have already been jeopardized. Really, in some sense it's a miracle that no one has been hurt or killed so far."
But in early January, police finally made an arrest. Wiebo Ludwig, an outspoken opponent of the oil and gas industry was taken into custody in Grande Prairie, Alberta. His sprawling Trickle Creek ranch on the Alberta side of Peace River Country was raided by about 100 police officers looking for evidence in connection with the bombings.
It's probably no surprise the RCMP thought Ludwig might know something. He is a seasoned eco-warrier who W5 first profiled 12 years ago. Back then he didn't pull any punches about what he wanted to do to the gas company when they installed sour gas wells close to his property. "You get so angry you want to blow them all up to smithereens," Ludwig said back then.
Ludwig blames toxic gas emissions from the wells for the miscarriages suffered by women in the close-knit Trickle Creek community. In 2000, after a protracted battle with the gas industry, Ludwig was convicted of five counts related to pipeline damage and spent 19 months jail. Convicted, but unrepentant, Ludwig has never admitted to his guilt.
The Mounties searched the Trickle Creek property for four days and very publicly suggested they had their man, but Ludwig was released after being interrogated for 10 hours. No charges were laid.
While attention has been focused on Wiebo Ludwig, he isn't the only one who has found himself on the Mounties' radar and who has been interrogated about the bombings. Residents of the Dawson Creek and Tomslake area told W5 that anyone who's had a beef with a gas company or has been outspoken about their environmental concerns are suspects.
Tim Ewart is a Tomslake area organic farmer who believes the RCMP is heavy-handed in its approach to residents. He recalls, "They repeatedly demanded basically that I give them my DNA. They wanted my fingerprints. They wanted a sample of my handwriting." Ewart said the Mounties, "insinuate that you are guilty," and the onus was on him to prove his innocence.
Many of those W5 spoke to in the area were also afraid of becoming RCMP suspects for speaking out publicly and refused to be interviewed on-camera. One resident, who did agree to speak with us anonymously said he was listed as a primary suspect because he spoke out against the oil industry. Interviewed in shadow, he said the RCMP also asked for his DNA and accused him of, "lying because (his) answers sounded too rehearsed".
RCMP Inspector Tim Shields defends the actions of the Mounties, saying they are just doing their job. "We will eliminate someone as being a person of interest when we have sufficient evidence that unequivocally proves to the investigators that this person could not have committed these bombings, he said"
The actions of the bomber and the RCMP investigation have, according to Dawson Creek Daily News Publisher Dan Przybylski, left everyone looking over their shoulder. "Both at home, on the farms, at business, you can't drive around. You can't go for an afternoon drive in the country without being stopped by somebody."
After his release, Wiebo Ludwig returned to his family farm at Trickle Creek. He has continued to maintain he has nothing to do with the bombings but admitted he couldn't be sure whether someone else at Trickle Creek was involved.
"There are 50 folks here, about 25 that are quite capable of getting involved with the Tomslake people and sympathize with our history with them" he said.
One thing is certain. The oil and gas industry isn't going away. But whether it and the residents of Peace River Country can learn to co-exist peacefully remains to be seen.