Karl Mattson, an artist and filmmaker from the town of Rolla in Northern B.C., produced this “escape pod” artwork last year. I saw it a few weeks ago on the concert grounds of the Sweetwater 905 Festival. It may look like a space capsule playhouse for kids, and sometimes it is, but it was actually built as shelter from the very real danger of highly toxic sour gas leaks, as well as a protest against the inadequately regulated gas industry in Northern BC. For those who don’t know, sour gas is natural gas containing large amounts of hydrogen sulfide. You’re breathing the gas equivalent of sulfuric acid. It’s a fast killer, ending the lives of many workers and bystanders every year worldwide.
Mattson and the escape pod are the subject of a new documentary to be premiered this fall at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
I visited Karl while in Rolla. He lives with his 4 year old daughter in a beautiful 100 year old house that he’s been adding to, but potential sulfuric acid gas leaks cast a long shadow on any idea of home, let alone home improvement.
Many in BC don’t know that the Peace River District is one of the single most productive grain and farming regions in Canada, producing more crops per acre than many farming areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta. And yet it is increasingly dotted with oil and gas (LNG, fracking) operations, many of which are not even profitable for the province in the long term, and are heavily publicly subsidized yet benefit private and foreign interests. The contamination of this area with industrial toxins and effluent has not sufficiently reached public consciousness.
For more information about sour gas and BC’s oil and gas industry, read Sour Gas: The Smell of Money.
Below is an article on Karl published in Fort St. John’s Energetic City site last year:
Rolla artist uses creation to make statement on health concerns presented by industry
Artist Karl Mattson from Rolla used the unveiling of a rather unusual piece of art to make a statement on his concerns about the dangers the oil and gas industry poses to his family.
With about 50 or more people gathered at their farm just off the Sweetwater Road, Mattson and his family – wife, Inge-Jean, and four-year-old daughter, Hollis – unveiled what can only be described as an escape pod reminiscent of a lunar module. The piece was built out of an old fuel tank and other machine parts, seats three people, and comes equipped with a 12-hour air supply and a beacon on the top.
Mattson said it’s probably not practical in the case of a real emergency, but he built it as expression of his frustration at the lack of a real plan.
“Basically, it’s a response to the lack of an emergency response plan to evacuate people in the event of a serious sour gas leak,” he said. “This is my way to express my concern, because phone calls don’t work.”
The extent of the industrial activity happening on and around his farm was evident that evening, as several well sites could be seen in the area as well as the right-of-way from a pipeline being constructed on an adjacent property. Mattson said the real danger of a leak is something he thinks about constantly.
“We actually had our H2S (hydrogen sulphide) metre go off on our kitchen table last winter. We have fugitive emissions coming through our yard a few times a year, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if they are the right type of emissions, it’s a big deal, and if it’s a leak, it’s a really big deal.”
He said the precautions he and others have been told to take in the event of a leak are not realistic.
“Some of the responses people get is to tape their windows. I live in a house that was built in 1917 – you can’t tape those windows or cracks.”
Mattson said he is not sure how to have his concerns addressed, but he believes the responsibility lies with the government.
“I think rural people here in Northeast B.C. are being treated as expendable, almost. This would never happen near a heavily populated area, but this is what we are dealing with. It’s not about the gas companies, it’s not about the workers, it’s about government regulations that allow them (companies) to monitor their own air and monitor their own everything.”
He said doesn’t think he is alone in those concerns judging by the response he received from the crowd.
In a dramatic conclusion to the evening, a helicopter came by after the unveiling and carried the “escape pod” away (the Mattsons were not inside at the time).
The whole event was captured by Julian Pinder, a documentary filmmaker from Toronto who is exploring the relationship between the oil and industry and rural landowners in the region for his latest project. Pinder also arranged to rent the helicopter.
“A couple of pilots actually wouldn’t do it because they were scared they would be blacklisted from the oil and gas industry, so we actually had to get somebody out of Chetwynd based in forestry,” he said.
Pinder said the event will make for a dramatic final scene for his movie.
“It’s kind of a culmination of all his frustration – Karl is one of the characters in the film – until he physically leaves, sort of ascends into the sky. It’s sort of a metaphor, but also a realistic response.”
He said expects to finish shooting the film this fall and will begin post-production shortly. He said the film will be distributed through theatres and cable television all around Canada once it is completed.
The evening also featured a very blunt and heartfelt poem by Dean Mattson, Karl’s brother, on his views on the changes that have been imposed on the landscape and quality of life in rural communities by industry. Music was provided by local musicians, Folky Strum Strum.