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Mystery at Trickle Creek

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Issue: 67 Section: Environment Geography: West Trickle Creek, Pouce Coup Topics: sour gas, EnCana, pipe bombings

February 17, 2010

Mystery at Trickle Creek

A visit to Wiebo Ludwig's farm provides answers - and raises questions - about a spate of bombings in northern BC

by Byron Christopher

Wiebo Ludwig at Trickle Creek. Photo: Byron Christopher

TRICKLE CREEK & EDMONTON—On a star-filled night in late November I pulled off a frozen dirt road and into Wiebo Ludwig’s farm. Trickle Creek, as it is known, is tucked away in 324 hectares of prairie and bush, west of the hamlet of Hythe, Alberta, close to the BC border.

I've worked in mainstream media for nearly three decades, and have written a number of stories on Weibo Ludwig and his conflicts with the oil and gas industry. I covered Ludwig’s trial in Edmonton, where Justice Sterling Sanderman—largely on circumstantial evidence—found Ludwig and his right-hand man, Richard Boonstra, guilty of oil field vandalism. Ludwig was not found guilty of terrorism, as some media outlets report.

Ludwig has been branded everything from an eco-warrior to an eco-terrorist. A local politician described the people of Trickle Creek as “country bumpkins.” I wanted to see for myself what Wiebo Ludwig and his people were about, and so I finally made the trip up to Trickle Creek. I was first invited there 10 years ago.

I stepped out of the car and Ludwig greeted me with a firm handshake. He led me inside a large log cabin where family members were scattered about: some were in the kitchen, some at a computer, others were in the living room seated around a wood-burning stove. Not long after I plunked myself down on a homemade rocking chair, a cat jumped up on my lap.

The chalet-style homes at Trickle Creek are nearly off the grid, featuring renewable energy tech like solar panels. Photo: Byron Christopher

Over tea and biscuits we talked about the state of the world, poisonous gas emissions, life at Trickle Creek and the news media. I thought Ludwig would dominate the conversation, but he didn’t. He was busy going through legal papers.

I mentioned that the old stove sure kicked out some nice heat. Someone pointed out the stove was specially constructed with extra metal pockets on the sides to hold fine sand because, theory goes, sand retains heat long after the fire is out.

I didn’t know that; it was the first of many eye-openers in my short stay at Trickle Creek.

The self-sufficient farmers
Wiebo Ludwig and his son Fritz each gave me tours of Trickle Creek. I was impressed. I saw a modern, nearly self-sufficient society with a mix of old-fashioned values and strong religious beliefs.

Much at Trickle Creek was high tech: solar panels that tracked the movement of the sun, and a functioning wind turbine. Both devices were connected to banks of batteries with digital readouts showing how much power was stored.

They showed me a beautiful greenhouse, a modern root cellar, another greenhouse the size of an airplane hanger, complete with solar panels and underground heating. In the main log cabin, an alarmed digital thermometer displayed current temperatures in the greenhouse and root cellar.

So much for “country bumpkins.”

The people at Trickle Creek maintain they’re about 80 per cent fossil-fuel free, and working toward 100 per cent. Residents produce their own bio-diesel fuel from used cooking oil. They figure the cost of fuel production is about one-fifth the cost of what they’d fork out at the gas pumps. Trickle Creek has its own flour mill and makes its own bread.

I saw more: over a dozen barrels of honey, two chicken coops, a pig pen, goats, sheep and milking cows. Horses and cattle grazed in fenced-in pastures. Large gardens and an area for growing berries and herbs sustain the population at Trickle Creek. The people of Trickle Creek pick wild berries and herbs from a swamp nearby.

Wiebo Ludwig and the people of Trickle Creek not only produce their own food but they also make their own soap and wine, do their own weaving and make their own vehicle repairs. They have wood-, metal- and glass-making shops. The chalet-style homes are clean and solid.

Trickle Creek also has its own church, tucked away at the end of the property.

Fifty-two people—three generations of the families of Ludwig and Boonstra, including more than a dozen young children—call Trickle Creek home.

Ludwig’s and Boonstra’s grandchildren, all home-schooled, are much like other kids: some were shy and others outgoing; the boys proudly displayed their toys, mostly homemade, and the girls showed off their drawings and paintings. No one mentioned video games, TV sitcoms or the latest movies and fashions.

Although residents traveled to towns and cities for supplies (and legal matters) no one shared with me that they’d like to move away. Just the opposite. When I brought up the subject of moving, one of Ludwig’s sons frowned. “Why would we want to leave this?”

Chief Bernard Ominayak, whose impoverished Lubicon Cree Nation lives three hours’ drive away, said Ludwig visited the Lubicon and offered to help them build new houses and become self-sufficient.

Richard Boonstra said they want to adopt half a dozen needy children, but they’ve been stymied by bureaucratic red tape and agency administrative fees of up to $50,000 per child.

The folks at Trickle Creek not only produce their own food, power and clothing, but their own music as well. I noticed musical instruments—an old wooden piano, guitars, violin and a drum set—the latter with the brand name “Ludwig.”

Well-worn Bibles lay scattered throughout the complex. Ludwig, an ordained pastor, took out his reading glasses and read from the scriptures every now and then. He asked if I was religious. I joked, “I’m an atheist, thank God.”

I offered to help some women in the kitchen who were busy cleaning pots and pans. Drying her hands on an apron, one replied, “That’s kind of you but we’re female chauvinists here.”

I was puzzled why I hadn’t come across stories about how the people of Trickle Creek were self-sufficient in the vast amounts of media coverage of Ludwig & Trickle Creek, especially considering how far north they live.

“It’s not that reporters don’t know,” said Ludwig. “We’ve given many the same tour. They just don’t want to report it; guess they’re just interested in the bombings.”

I too am interested in bombings and what police and concerned people have to say. My tour of Trickle Creek got me wondering, not just about the initiatives I’d seen but whether the threat that self-sufficiency poses to the status quo has played a part in it being omitted from coverage of this case. How much of the story of gas-well poisonings is the public really getting?

I asked both Ludwig and Boonstra whether they were behind the recent EnCana bombings at Tomslake in northern BC—or if they knew who the culprit was. Each answered, “No.”

They added, however, that if they did know they wouldn’t be telling.

The Encana bombings
Over the past couple of years somebody has been blowing up equipment owned by EnCana Corporation of Calgary. EnCana’s pipelines carry hydrogen sulfide (H2S), also known as sour gas, which can be deadly if inhaled. Not quite an hour’s drive from Trickle Creek, near the BC hamlet of Tomslake, six explosions have rocked pipelines and a shed owned by EnCana. The bombings began in the fall of 2008; the last explosion was in July. They have raised quite a stink, in more ways than one: the smell was unmistakable, and residents have raised their voices both about the bombings, but also to question the safety of sour gas pipelines in the area.

The bomber has sent letters to EnCana, warning the explosions would continue unless the company stopped operations, including the drilling for and extraction of sour gas. EnCana offered a $1 million reward for information that helps put the bomber behind bars.

It’s not known who is behind the fireworks at Tomslake, but there have been three main suspects. The first two were Ludwig and Boonstra, convicted in 2000 following a spate of well-head explosions in northwestern Alberta two years earlier. (Both men ended up eating prison food; Boonstra for a couple of weeks, Ludwig for a year and a half.)

Last year, the RCMP approached Ludwig for help in solving the bombings. Ludwig agreed to talk with them. The first of several meetings was held at Trickle Creek, where cautious family members videotaped proceedings. (They later loaned this tape to a W5 crew in exchange for a DVD of the program about them that aired on CTV on January 23, 2010.)

Last fall a radio station based in Camrose, Alberta, broadcast a portion of a leaked letter Ludwig had sent to the EnCana bomber. Other media outlets soon followed, and because the story broke on a weekend, the open letter became big news. In his two-page letter, Ludwig expressed sympathy to the bomber’s cause. He also asked the bomber to chill out for a while: “Give peace a chance.”

The third suspect was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Testimony at Ludwig's previous trial revealed the Mounties blasted an oil-company shed with dynamite in an elaborate attempt to convince Ludwig to trust one of their informants.

RCMP mischief?
After the shed was blown up, the RCMP issued a news release. Reporters, me included, trusted the release about the terrorist attack and we went with the story. Local residents told us they were terrified and shocked. They were shocked a second time when they realized they’d been duped by the police and not served all that well by a media too trusting of authority.

In Canada, it is unlawful to issue false information to the public; those who do are liable to be charged with mischief. When asked if any Mounties would face such charges over the fake press release, the crown’s office responded that they were looking into it. That was 10 years ago. There hasn't been a report since.

Sour gas, bitter feelings
On November 22, 2009, a gas leak from an EnCana well near Pouce Coupe, close to Tomslake, caused a number of residents to scramble. Company representatives arrived and hurriedly knocked on doors, only to find residents had already evacuated.

While a spokesman from EnCana was quoted as saying the leak posed no danger, angry residents disagreed. They said the level of sour gas coming from the well was as high as 8,200 parts per million—nearly 12 times the lethal level (700 parts per million).

At the time there were reports of one woman’s lungs being burned and a young horse dying as a result of the leak.

A public meeting to discuss the crisis was canceled by the regulatory group investigating the leak, the Oil and Gas Commission (OGC). Both the OGC and EnCana said they preferred to continue speaking with residents one-on-one to having a large meeting. About 50 concerned citizens turned up anyway and held their own meeting.

In a letter to the Edmonton Journal, S.D. Gregg, a concerned citizen, wrote: “If the bombing of gas pipelines is environmental terrorism, then why isn’t releasing sour gas into the air regularly considered the same? I’m totally disgusted with the hypocrisy displayed here and I’m not much of an environmentalist.”

Gregg has reason to be annoyed.

In February 2001, Ben Parfitt, writing for the Vancouver news site straight.com, reported that a leak of sour gas killed 25-year-old Ryan Strand, an energy worker from Fort St. John, BC. His last words over his radio were, “I need help, I need help...”

In December 2003, a sour gas well near Xiaoyang, China, ruptured. Parfitt wrote, “In what Chinese officials would later call a 25-square kilometer ‘death zone,’ 243 residents died and 9,000 were injured and 40,000 people had to flee their homes.” Victims suffered mainly from acid burns on their skin and throughout the respiratory system. The aged and children accounted for a large proportion of the dead. Scores of dogs, ducks, rabbits and other domestic animals also perished. Even fish did not escape.

The raid on Trickle Creek
Early on January 8, 2010, Trickle Creek was raided by the RCMP and Ludwig was picked up for extortion in connection with the EnCana bombings.

I learned about Ludwig’s arrest when an excited Boonstra called me at home to say Trickle Creek had been invaded by an RCMP tactical team. He said the officers, in full-body armor, were armed with high-powered rifles and a search warrant.

At one point in the police raid, an estimated 150 RCMP were on site.

Boonstra said the raid and the arrest of Ludwig caught them completely by surprise.

Ludwig, along with his son Josh, had been on their way to a meeting with the RCMP at the Super 8 Hotel in Grande Prairie, which they thought was another friendly get-together to talk about Tomslake. The meeting had been arranged before Christmas.

According to Ludwig, immediately after he and his son parked their van in the hotel parking lot an unmarked RCMP police car boxed them in. Several other police cruisers pulled up. Ludwig was told he was being arrested for extortion.

“I said, ‘Extortion?’” Ludwig recalls. “Extortion has never come into my mind, unless you have access to my subconscious.”

Ludwig was put into the back of an unmarked police vehicle. He was not handcuffed.

Instead of making a bee-line to the holding cell, the unmarked vehicle made a detour to a Giant Tiger big box store parking lot. The Mounties had a male suspect pinned to the ground. Ludwig says one of the officers then ran over to the ghost car he was in and announced they’d subdued a “cop-hater”—a guy who had just punched a police officer in the face.

When he arrived at the station, there in the same cell was the cop-hater.

Ludwig suspected the man was a plant, someone whose job it is to weasel information from people accused in high-profile criminal cases. According to Ludwig, when he saw the man in his cell, he told an RCMP officer, “What’s going on here? I saw this man in a violent take-down. You have a duty to make sure my life is protected.”

According to Ludwig, the officer responded, “Yeah, that’s true, but go in the cell anyway.”

Ludwig says it didn’t take long for his cellmate to boast how much he hated police and to try to engage Ludwig in a conversation. Ludwig says when he confronted his cell-mate about being a plant, the man became belligerent.

The RCMP detachment in Grande Prairie has no report of an assault on an officer on January 8, let alone a report of a resulting arrest

Ludwig says he was interrogated for about 10 hours. Some of that time, Ludwig watched a video of and listened to the RCMP talk about a man who rose from a convicted terrorist to a world-renowned statesman: Nelson Mandela.

The eco-activist says Mounties tried to draw a parallel between Mandela’s struggle and his own. “He [the officer] said, ‘You know, the thing he did—and that’s what I want you to listen to carefully, Wiebo—he did a wonderful thing there, he didn’t try to sneak and say, ‘No, I had nothing to do with it.’ He just laid it out what he had done, why he had done it and he was respected around the globe for that. You know it would do your cause a lot of good if you would just lay this stuff out, you’d get a lot of respect, whatever your involvement has been.'”

Ludwig says he listened for four hours but said nothing, except to tell the officers he was no Nelson Mandela.

The RCMP claims to have DNA evidence linking Ludwig to the envelopes mailed to EnCana. According to Ludwig, officers told him there’s a “liberal sprinkling” of his DNA on the envelope. Ludwig says he told officers, “That’s impossible.”

Indeed, only after Ludwig had been arrested and was being held at the police station in Grande Prairie did the RCMP use a court order to get a blood sample for his DNA.

'Eco-terrorism' and the politics of policing
Paul Joosse, completing a PhD at the University of Alberta on radical environmentalists and eco-terrorism, has also visited Trickle Creek. His theory is that police interrogators were “spinning tales,” trying to scare Ludwig into giving up evidence or making a confession.

According to Joosse, the RCMP raid at Trickle Creek and Ludwig’s arrest had more to do with public relations than detective work. In an opinion column in the Edmonton Journal, Joosse wrote, “It does not look good for Canada to have unsolved cases of domestic terrorism when it is about to host a major international event [the Winter Olympics] for which security already is a major concern.”

Ludwig agrees, describing the massive police raid at Trickle Creek as “show time for the Olympics,” with a message to the public: “Don’t worry, everything is safe.”

Less than a day after the Mounties grabbed him, Ludwig was set free—without charges. Ludwig’s understanding is that a crown prosecutor in British Columbia felt there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant a charge.

After a phone interview with an Edmonton radio station, Ludwig headed west on Highway 43, towards his ranch. He stopped momentarily to give a quick comment to a group of reporters stuck at a police roadblock, then drove down the dirt road to Trickle Creek.

Ludwig pulled into the yard to find 100 Mounties searching rooms, pulling out drawers, opening cabinets and hauling away things they figured could be the smoking gun in the EnCana bombings. Police seized two computers, filing cabinets, a video camera and tapes, among other things.

The search warrant listed red and blue pens, writing paper, an ink-jet printer, explosives, a pair of shoes and regular postage stamps. Ludwig says the Mounties also made off with a number of things not listed on the search warrant: a pellet gun, a decorative sword and some hunting knives, carting off 10 large Tupperware boxes of stuff.

Boonstra says the police raid ended on a somewhat friendly note, with family members providing Mounties with tea, coffee and quotes from the Bible. He also tells of how, when a Mountie patted down a small boy, the child said, “He wants to know if I am warm.”

In spite of the police raid and the arrests (Ludwig’s son Levi was also arrested on January 8, strip-searched and released the same day), Ludwig said he hasn’t closed the door to helping dissolve the tensions at Tomslake. He appeared to display no contempt for the RCMP.

I asked Ludwig why he would want to cooperate with the police.

“I have seen in life the us and them syndrome and I’ve seen the kind of trouble we get in if we don’t first treat each other as human beings,” he said.

Mounties told reporters that while they collected more evidence during their search at the farm, the evidence they had initially, in their opinion, had justified the raid. Police have indicated they believe Wiebo Ludwig is their man.

Edmonton defence lawyer David Willson has a problem with police making such statements. According to Willson, “The Mounties have practically convicted the guy. That’s bullshit.”

Dennis Sherbanuk, a retired agricultural reporter/producer with CBC Radio, feels that in Alberta there’s a tremendous amount of dissent towards the oil and gas industry, and it’s been that way for a long time.

Sherbanuk wonders why the resentment has never led to some sort of movement.

A group of farmers from British Columbia recently dropped by Trickle Creek at the tail end of the raid to express their support for Ludwig in his fight against what is seen as police harassment and concerns over the sour gas leaks. Ludwig said the BC farmers “related to the cause and were excited, in a healthy sense.”

Ludwig also says people should stop looking to last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and instead clean up our own yards and gather together to find some way to stop this “craziness.”

Police should deal with the “real criminals,” he adds, those who are responsible for the leaks of poisonous gasses. He calls his part of the country a “regular industrial site with flares all over the place, pipelines going everywhere, well sites, compression stations and constant emissions that poison the air.” Over time, he says, even low-level emissions can do terrible damage on people’s nervous system, lungs and memory.

To add to the tension, a Calgary-based energy company is now digging a well just three kilometres from Trickle Creek. The company plans to drill diagonally to within about two kilometres of the ranch. According to Ludwig’s son, Benjamin, the drilling is supposed to slice through an underground aqueduct that supplies Trickle Creek with its drinking water.

After the RCMP pulled out, the media pulled in and Ludwig was again giving journalists tours of Trickle Creek. Some got to see the 40 baby goats that were born during the raid.

Not long after the police and media invasions, a lone RCMP car returned one evening. Inside were the two lead investigators. The officers stayed for several hours and had dinner with the people of Trickle Creek.

Ludwig says he and the officers parted company with handshakes, and that his final words to the Mounties were, “See you again sometime.”

***

Wiebo Ludwig and Richard Boonstra were born in Holland and moved to North America in the early 1950s, when they were young boys. Their fathers were resistance fighters during World War II. Ludwig’s father, a tailor, was leader of some 200 fighters.

I’ve sometimes described Wiebo Ludwig as a strict fundamentalist and an Old Testament kind of guy. “Not fair,” he says. “But I can see today where anybody who speaks somewhat deeply spiritually, scripturally, is going to be identified with that. There’s not much room for those discussions, unfortunately. The church itself has made it impossible to keep that discussion somewhat alive in society. The church has compromised and made itself a laughingstock of the intellectual world.”

“You’ve been through a lot,” I told him. “Have you ever felt that God deserted you?”

“Quite the opposite.”

Byron Christopher is an Edmonton-based reporter.

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