What it’s like when oil runs through your backyard
You can smell the oil from Wayne Johnston’s house.
The scent wafts, when the wind is right, from a baby-blue pumpjack whirring up and down a short walk from his front door.
And his grass grows just a little greener in thin, straight lines radiating out from the humming pumpjack – all he sees of pipelines snaking under his property, most of the time.
This is what it’s like living with oil running through your backyard.
The road to Sundre, Alberta rises and falls through a landscape of low hills and farmland, the Rocky Mountains visible far off to the west.
And everywhere you look, you see the oil industry.
Almost every field has a pumpjack working away. Little signs sit next to the road – WARNING: HIGH PRESSURE PIPELINE – each a reminder of the sometimes uneasy relationship between two great Alberta industries: agriculture and oil.
Johnston has lived on his farm, about a 20-minute drive northeast of Sundre, for the entirety of his 68 years; his wife Ila has lived there since they were married over 40 years ago. Wayne’s mother and the couple’s daughter both live nearby.
One part of their property has 29 separate pipelines running underneath it. Off the top of his head, he can’t remember how many are on the rest.
The two of them have spent their lives raising beef cattle along Jackson Creek and the Red Deer River.
But after an oil spill about four years ago, he keeps them on another side of his property. He doesn’t think it’s safe for them to graze near his own house anymore.
“I’m a farmer and I’m supposed to supply clean food and I can’t. I literally can’t,” he said.
“You know darned well when this smell comes in.”
In the past 37 years, 39 spills have originated on the Johnstons’ property, according to ERCB data, amounting to about 45 barrels of crude. Wayne Johnston doesn’t believe it: He thinks it’s too small.
“There would be more than that in one spill.”
They know the telltale smell of hydrogen sulfide.
And last June, they could smell when something was wrong.
“It was a really hot afternoon and we were outside. I was working in the flowerbeds, and all of a sudden this horrible stench came in,” Ila Johnston said. “It was unlike anything we’d really smelled before. We’re very aware of what H2S smells like, that sort of thing. And it took my breath away. I couldn’t get my breath.”
A Plains Midstream pipeline had sprung a leak, dumping more than 3,000 barrels of crude oil into Jackson Creek, just upriver from the Johnstons’ property. The oil flowed down the creek and into the flooded Red Deer River, threatening Glennifer Lake and the town of Red Deer’s water supply.
It smelled like “Hell,” Wayne Johnson said. “It was just an ungodly smell. You know, it wasn’t nice at all.
“I knew there was a bad break somewheres. This is what happens when they have a bad break. You know darned well when this smell comes in. To describe it right dead-on, you can’t, but you know when it’s here.”
As oil washed up onto the Johnstons’ land along the river, Wayne rushed his wife to the hospital.
“I’ve got hypersensitive airways that take very little, even exhaust sometimes will set me off,” Ila said. “So I had Wayne take me to the hospital, and they put me on oxygen there, and right away there was a big improvement.”
WATCH: Ila Johnston describes the morning of the spill
The Johnstons’ neighbour Dennis Overguard was at home that afternoon, recovering from a heart attack a month earlier.
As oil from the Plains Midstream spill flowed from Jackson Creek into the Red Deer River near his home, the company told Overguard to evacuate. But he couldn’t leave – he wasn’t permitted to drive yet because of his heart.
So he spent two hours sitting in his living room, breathing the fumes, waiting for his wife Joanne to return from a nursing course.
“When she got back here to me, it had actually collapsed arteries in my heart,” he said. He was rushed again to hospital in Calgary, where he says doctors placed four stents in his arteries.
Because of the fumes in the area, Overguard says he wasn’t allowed to return home. He says he spent 126 days living in a Sundre bed and breakfast and eating meals in local restaurants at Plains Midstream’s expense.
“They didn’t want a dead man on their hands,” Overguard said.
Plains Midstream declined to comment for this article, citing the province’s ongoing investigation into the spill.
Like the Johnstons, Overguard has had no shortage of oil and gas incidents on his land. He doesn’t know how many pipelines cross his property. “Probably one hundred, maybe more?” he said, laughing.
“Most of the time, you never have any troubles, but it’s just that sometimes you do.”
Like when his grandmother lost her house in 1970. Oil spilled into the water well under the house. As they were pumping it out, the spark from a cigarette ignited the whole basement. Thankfully, everyone got out before the house burned to the ground.
Or at his daughter’s 7th birthday party in the early 1990s, when there was a sour gas leak on the property. “They evacuated us and the kids and put towels over their faces and stuff and we got them out of there,” he said.
“We had a dumb duck that had decided to nest right then and it was colder than anything outside. So the kids had these four little ducklings in a box in the porch, inside the house. And when we got back all four ducks were dead.”
He estimates that he is affected by at least one incident, sometimes two, every year. But according to ERCB data there has been on average a little more than one incident every three years that originated on his property. That wouldn’t include those, like last year’s spill, which happened upriver but washed onto his land.
“Most times it’s not as severe as this Plains thing. Most of the time it’s on land instead of in the water. That’s what really screwed stuff up this time.”
Overguard has had a pretty good relationship with the 10 or so companies whose oil runs through his land. “Most times, the companies do their best to compensate you.”
John Mikal, upon whose property the spill actually occurred, found that the company handled everything responsibly.
“Actually, they did a pretty good job of cleaning it up,” he said.
“The Environment people are real sticklers about what goes on down there, and they did soil samples and stuff like that, making sure everything is cleaned up. And they’d tell them to clean up again, if they weren’t positively happy with what they found.”
“For the first couple of months, you’d keep getting whiffs of it,” he added. “In June and July we had some issues with smells and that, but after that, they had it under control.”
“It’s a living hell.”
Pipelines don’t just appear on people’s property. Oil companies pay landowners for the right to build a well or a pipeline – usually a one-time payment, based on the perceived value of the land and any disruption that it might cause the landowner’s farming or business practices.
If a landowner and company can’t agree on the payment amount or the route a pipeline should take, the energy company can take its case to the Alberta Surface Rights Board and apply for a right-of-entry – an order that gives them the right to place their pipeline, and set a rate of compensation to the landowner.
Landowners can also ask for financial compensation if their land is damaged by an oil company’s activities. Usually this is settled between the two parties, but the case can also be brought to the Surface Rights Board if they disagree.
Wayne Johnston received about $27,000 for the installation of four pipelines on his land, though he doesn’t receive any money for the many pipelines put in before he bought parts of his current farm.
But he doesn’t think that money makes up for the difficulties he has had, from oil companies driving vehicles through his fields and leaving ruts, to not properly cleaning up after a spill.
“It should be danger pay! You’re living in fear all the time,” he said. “Nobody will listen, that’s all there is to it.”
WATCH: Wayne Johnston describes what it’s like to live near oil development
Brenda Kenny, president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, said the volume of spills the Johnstons describe sounds “not appropriate.”
“There should not be that level of spills on their property,” she said, adding that it could just be due to a high level of activity in the area. “When they say, ‘I’ve had a spill a year,’ what they’re probably telling you is there have been very minor incidents that have been cleaned up. They’re regulated at the provincial level, as they should be.”
Kenny added that the association has done polling across Canada, and found “the majority of Canadians do feel safe around pipelines. … “And more importantly, when we survey landowners, they feel even better.”
The association did not provide the full survey results or methodology.
Neither Wayne nor Ila Johnston wants to see an end to Alberta’s oil extraction. They just wish things were run differently.
“I think the government needs to say, ‘Slow down; do it right,’” Ila said. “Make sure our own country has what we need for fuel, because we need it, but don’t rush through it. Make sure it’s safe for everybody. And don’t just count the oil industry as the only income in Canada.”
Oil in your backyard
You can find information on every spill of crude oil, crude bitumen and synthetic crude since 1975 in the map below, and search by location.