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Deadly sour gas has killed the second worker in three years near the small Alberta community of Fox Creek.

RCMP were called Saturday evening after the gas, which contains hydrogen sulfide, leaked while three people were doing maintenance on a natural gas line. Two of the workers were exposed; a third was farther away.

Police donned breathing packs to help the first two workers, but one of them died at the scene. The other was taken to hospital. An RCMP member operating a roadblock was also taken to hospital after being exposed to the gas.

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Police are not releasing names of those involved, and did not immediately provide details on corporate ownership of the gas line. But the incident carries unsettling echoes of an incident in the region just three years ago that also killed a natural gas worker.

A British Columbia man, Hans Olson, died in March 2008. He was conducting gas well maintenance at the time near Fox Creek, which is located 260 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Last March, Mr. Olson's employer, ELH Enterprises, was charged with seven counts of violating Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act. Among those charges was an allegation that Mr. Olson was not properly trained.

The hydrogen sulfide that makes gas "sour" gives off a powerful rotten-egg smell, and is deadly at concentrations ranging from 250 to 1,000 parts per million. At higher concentrations, it can kill in seconds.

Industry processes sour gas to remove the hydrogen sulfide, but production of the potentially deadly substance has long been controversial in Alberta. Residents near sour gas wells have blamed it for a wide range of health effects that include birth defects, animal deaths and cancers.

In B.C., the Workers Compensation Board has said about four or five "knockdowns" occur every year among workers that inhale non-fatal amounts of hydrogen sulphide. B.C. Premier Christy Clark has promised to look into health and safety concerns related to sour gas, although roughly 85 per cent of Canada's production of the substance occurs in Alberta.

According to the Alberta Energy Research Conservation Board, Alberta has about 6,000 sour gas wells that feed 240 processing plants and 12,500 kilometres of sour gas pipeline.

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According to research conducted by the University of Calgary, processing of the gas leaks some 55 tonnes of "residual" sulfur into the Alberta atmosphere every day, enough that it is a suspected cause of localized acid rain.

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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