Category Archives: Water and Hydrocarbons

Fracking, Site C and the mystery of Hudson's Hope water contamination

Fracking, Site C and the mystery of Hudson’s Hope water contamination

Fracking, Site C and the mystery of Hudson's Hope water contamination
Five year-old River Summer looks on at Brenot Creek landslide (Photo: Leigh Summer)

A series of landslides above the northeast BC community of Hudson’s Hope has been dumping contaminated soils into several local creeks, extending now to the Peace River. Local landowners whose water supply has been affected are demanding answers.

But Mayor Gwen Johansson, who has been monitoring the situation since trouble first appeared last summer, says all she really has is a lot of questions.

The three biggest ones are:

1. Did nearby fracking operations – or related wastewater disposal – cause the landslides?

2. Is fracking wastewater the source of the contamination unleashed into a series of interconnected creeks?

3. If not, and the the contamination is naturally-occurring in local soils, as the Oil and Gas Commission contends, then what are the implications for the proposed Site C Dam, which could further erode and carry contaminated soils downstream for decades to come?

What we do know

Slide at Brenot Creek (submitted)
Slide at Brenot Creek (submitted)

Since the summer of 2014, the ongoing slides have spewed sediment laced with toxic heavy metals – including lead, arsenic, barium, cadmium and lithium – into Brenot Creek, which flows into Lynx Creek, which in turn feeds into the Peace River. Large bars of sediment have formed in Brenot and Lynx Creeks and contaminated water has now nearly reached another major river in the area, the Halfway – according to local landowner, Ross Peck. 

Farmer Leigh Summer, whose property lies below the slide area, has watched with horror as Brenot Creek has become packed with toxic silt. “Now it’s so muddy that when you put your hand in it, if you have an inch of water over top of your hand, you can’t see your hand,” Summer told the Alaska Highway News. “There used to be fish in the creek, but it’s basically dead today.” 

His neighbour, Rhee Simpson, has seen the well she depends on run dry, likely filled in with sediment. “I have no water,” Simpson, a resident and farmer near the creek for 62 years, told the CBC earlier this week. “You can’t play in it. You can’t fish in it. You can’t drink it. Your stock can’t drink it. Someone has to do something to get our water back.”

We also know that there were fracking operations in close proximity to the slide approximately 3 years ago, with more in the surrounding areas of Talisman (now Progress Energy/Petronas’) Farrell Creek play – but likely not close enough to be related. See the map below – provided by the District of Hudson’s Hope (click to expand).

Fracking Map_Lynx, Brenot Creeks

We know that the shale gas extraction process is associated with increased seismic activity – as we were reminded by the recent 4.6 magnitude quake in Wonowon, some 70 km away, as the crow flies. This is most frequently associated with the injection of “produced water” (used fracking fluids) into waste wells to dispose of it underground after a well has been fracked – though in some cases the fracking process itself can trigger seismic activity. 

We also know that the terrain in this region is no stranger to landslides, as it’s composed of loose materials like shale, sand and clay. That’s always been a strong argument against Site C Dam by local landowners who know this. The Williston Reservoir, West of the planned Site C reservoir has seen massive expansion since its flooding in 1968, gobbling up the banks of the water body far beyond original predictions, due to the instability of the soils. The terrain East of there, where Site C is proposed, is even less stable. More on that in a moment.

See no evil

Fracking operations near Hudson's Hope in 2012 (Damien Gillis)
Fracking near Hudson’s Hope in 2012 (Damien Gillis)

The testing of the Brenot creek slide and contamination been pretty pitiful thus far, given what’s at stake. The OGC has declared the toxins “naturally occurring”, maintaining, “there’s no evidence that fracking operations are the source of the contamination – which has the ring of the sort of technicality-based, legalistic denials we heard for years from the tobacco industry. As Carl Sagan said, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” Bear in mind, too, that the OGC is hardly known for its tough, independent monitoring and regulation of the oil and gas industry.

The municipality spent its own money to hire independent hydrologist and shale gas expert Dr. Gilles Wendling to conduct some preliminary tests beginning last summer, but it lacks the resources to carry the load with the kind of in-depth, ongoing testing required here. According to the mayor in a letter to the community published in January, 2015 (see page 22), “Dr. Wendling’s readings were consistently above guidelines for the heavy metals, and the origin was sand in the water coming out of the bank at a slide on Brenot Creek.”

Those findings prompted the District to install a water advisory in September, 2014, which the Ministry of Environment supported, formally warning people to avoid the water for personal use, animals and irrigation.

In January, Johansson wrote, “The MoE representative said they have no plans to do anything further, other than file a report. He said he expected that eventually the creek would cleanse itself.”

Well, a year later, the creek has not cleansed itself. According to Johansson, The Ministry Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) has a landslide specialist who has been monitoring expansion of slide. He has explained that because the slide is so vertical, we can expect that it will continue moving for some time to come.

Mayor Johansson notes that in the old days, this is the kind of work MoE could have been counted on to carry out in a thorough manner but they haven’t been back to investigate further to date. In the wake of recent media attention on the issue, though, officials have indicated they are coming up for a site visit by helicopter next week. If what they see from the air is enough cause for concern – as it well should be – then Johansson hopes they will return to take soil samples and conduct thorough testing.

Another possible culprit

bennett dam-2
The Williston Reservoir and Bennett Dam

Landowner Leigh Summer isn’t convinced that shale gas activity is responsible – or at least the sole culprit – for the slides. “I was pretty convinced initially, but the flow seems to increase with the level of Williston (Reservoir) increasing, so I have a feeling it’s a conjunction of the two,” he told the Alaska Highway News.

“There’s something going on with the aquifers underneath…I suspect, in my mind, that there’s some connection between one or the other, or both.”

Pandora’s box

Regardless of the cause of the slides, if the OGC is correct and this erosion has simply unleashed naturally-occurring contaminants in the soil – a sort of opening up of Pandora’s Box – that’s a frightening prospect indeed.

Plainly put, if fracking operations are the source of the contamination, that’s bad news. But if they aren’t, that’s perhaps even worse news when you consider that the proposed Site C Dam would engulf much of the area below the slide, closer to the river, and potentially continue carrying contamination far downstream well into the distant future.

“If these contaminants are in the soil, how far along the Peace Valley do they extend?” asks Mayor Johansson. The fact is, given the dearth of studies, we don’t yet have a clue. And the implications could be massive for the region – and well beyond – as Summer notes:

“We are really subjecting ourselves to the risk of having a contaminated reservoir which, obviously, contaminates the river all the way to the Slave (River) and to the Mackenzie (River) and the Arctic Ocean, so it’s pretty significant.”

Either way, we need serious, credible testing now. The Clark government is already spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars, rushing ahead with early Site C construction 70 KM downstream, at the proposed dam site. This despite BC Hydro’s own acknowledgement that the power from the dam won’t be required until at least 2029! If this naturally-occurring contamination extends for a great distance along the banks of the Peace River, then building Site C and flooding this area is a nightmare scenario we would do well to avoid.

David Suzuki-Trading water for fuel is fracking crazy

David Suzuki: Trading water for fuel is fracking crazy

David Suzuki-Trading water for fuel is fracking crazy
Fracking protest in New Brunswick (photo: Colin McPhail)

It would be difficult to live without oil and gas. But it would be impossible to live without water. Yet, in our mad rush to extract and sell every drop of gas and oil as quickly as possible, we’re trading precious water for fossil fuels.

A recent report, “Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Stress”, shows the severity of the problem. Alberta and B.C. are among eight North American regions examined in the study by Ceres, a U.S.-based nonprofit advocating for sustainability leadership.

Fracking happening is regions of “high water stress”

One of the most disturbing findings is that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is using enormous amounts of water in areas that can scarcely afford it. The report notes that close to half the oil and gas wells recently fracked in the U.S. “are in regions with high or extremely high water stress” and more than 55 per cent are in areas experiencing drought.

In Colorado and California, almost all wells – 97 and 96 per cent, respectively – are in regions with high or extremely high water stress, meaning more than 80 per cent of available surface and groundwater has already been allocated for municipalities, industry and agriculture. A quarter of Alberta wells are in areas with medium to high water stress.

Fracking will compound California’s 500-year drought

Drought and fracking have already caused some small communities in Texas to run out of water altogether, and parts of California are headed for the same fate. As we continue to extract and burn ever greater amounts of oil, gas and coal, climate change is getting worse, which will likely lead to more droughts in some areas and flooding in others.

California’s drought may be the worst in 500 years, according to B. Lynn Ingram, an earth and planetary sciences professor at the University of California, Berkeley. That’s causing a shortage of water for drinking and agriculture, and for salmon and other fish that spawn in streams and rivers. With no rain to scrub the air, pollution in the Los Angeles area has returned to dangerous levels of decades past.

BC, Alberta could face similar problems

Because of lack of information from industry and inconsistencies in water volume reporting, Ceres’ Western Canada data analysis “represents a very small proportion of the overall activity taking place.” Researchers determined, though, that Alberta fracking operations have started using more “brackish/saline” groundwater instead of freshwater. The report cautions that this practice needs more study “given the potential for brackish water to be used in the future for drinking water” and the fact that withdrawing salty groundwater “can also adversely impact interconnected freshwater resources.”

Although B.C. fracking operations are now mainly in low water stress regions, reduced precipitation and snowpack, low river levels and even drought conditions in some areas – likely because of climate change – raise concerns about the government’s plan to rapidly expand the industry. The report cites a “lack of regulation around groundwater withdrawals” and cumulative impacts on First Nations lands as issues with current fracking.

“Everything must go”

Ceres’ study only looks at fracking impacts on freshwater supplies, and offers recommendations to reduce those, including recycling water, using brackish or wastewater, strengthening regulations and finding better ways to dispose of fracking wastewater. But the drilling method comes with other environmental problems, from groundwater contamination to massive ecosystem and habitat disruption – even small earth tremors – all done in the name of short-term gain.

It’s important to heed the conclusions and recommendations of this study and others, but given the problems with fracking, and other forms of extraction, we must find ways to control our insatiable fossil fuel demand. That burning these – often wastefully – contributes to climate change, and our methods of extraction exacerbate the problems, should make us take a good look at how we’re treating this planet and everything on it, including ourselves and generations to come. It’s a reminder that we need to conserve energy in every way possible.

In the short term, we must realize that we have better ways to create jobs and build the economy than holding an “everything must go” sale on our precious resources. In the longer term, we must rethink our outdated economic systems, which were devised for times when resources were plentiful and infrastructure was scarce. Our highest priorities must be the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil that provides food and the biodiversity that keeps us alive and healthy.

With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. 

Yet another CNRL leak probed by Alberta regulator in Cold Lake

Yet another CNRL leak probed by Alberta regulator in Cold Lake

Yet another CNRL leak probed by Alberta regulator in Cold Lake
An earlier CNRL leak in Cold Lake, Alberta (Chester Dawson / Wall Street Journal)

COLD LAKE, Alta. – The Alberta Energy Regulator is investigating another leak from a Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ) bitumen well near Cold Lake.

The regulator says 27,000 litres of crude bitumen were released underground on Jan. 3 at the company’s troubled Primrose field.

But agency spokesman Darin Barter said the leak has been stopped.

“There was no release to surface,” Barter said Friday. “There’s no aquifers that have been impacted by this incident.”

Barter said the release has been definitively attributed to a failed well casing, setting this leak apart from an earlier one in the same field last summer that also remains under investigation.

In that leak, more than a million litres of bitumen has so far seeped to the surface. The spill continues, although cold weather has slowed the amount to almost nothing.

CNRL has said the earlier leak was also due to a well failure.

“We don’t necessarily share that view of the incident,” said Barter.

The regulator is investigating whether the bitumen escaped through cracks in the rock above the deposit and was driven to the surface by high-pressure steam pumped underground to soften it before being extracted. The company has been ordered to reduce the pressure of the steam it uses.

The first leak remains the subject of a $40-million cleanup effort from CNRL.

Barter said there’s no indication when the regulator’s report on that leak will be complete.

There were also bitumen leaks at the Primrose field in 2009. The regulator concluded those leaks were at least partially caused by high volumes and high pressures of steam.

Mike Hudema with Greenpeace Canada said it is “incredible” that CNRL is still allowed to continue its operations. Said Hudema in a press release:

[quote]If the Alberta government is serious about protecting Alberta’s environment, it has to pull CNRL’s approval for their Cold Lake operations. How many more spills will it take before we see real action?[/quote]

Industry seeks right to release water from oilsands tailings ponds

Industry seeks right to release water from oilsands tailings ponds

Industry wants right to release water from oilsands tailings ponds
Syncrude tailings pond (photo: David Dodge, Pembina Institute)

EDMONTON – Oilsands producers are talking with the federal and Alberta governments about conditions under which water from the industry’s tailings ponds could be released into the environment.

Officials say releases would only involve treated water and wouldn’t happen until the end of a mine’s life.

Environmentalists are watching the discussions closely and warn that quality standards for released tailings water should be high.

“If they’d be willing to take the water and dump it in the Bow River near Calgary, then perhaps,” said Keith Stewart of Greenpeace.

Alberta has a zero discharge policy for the oilsands. No water affected by processing is allowed back into the Athabasca River and even rain that falls on developed sites must be collected and stored.

Most of that water is kept in tailings ponds.

Companies failing to meet regulations for tailings ponds

The ponds — covering 170 square kilometres with a toxic blend of hydrocarbons, silt, salts and heavy metals — have been a lingering headache for the industry. Alberta’s energy regulator has already had to relax on enforcing regulations about cleaning up the ponds after companies pleaded they would simply be unable to meet their targets.

But as the province develops new tailings regulations, there is general acknowledgment that something will have to be done with the water currently filling the ponds once contaminants have been removed and stored at the bottom of so-called end-pit lakes. Said department spokeswoman Nikki Booth in an email:

[quote](Alberta Environment) is consulting on a tailings management framework with industry and First Nations. Included in that consultation are discussions about introducing tailings water (free of the tailings) back into natural waterways at the end of a project.[/quote]

Those discussions have been occurring for some time. Documents obtained under Access to Information laws refer in the summer of 2012 to “the industry request for tailings release as a management option.”

Federal environment spokesman Mark Johnson confirmed that reference.

“A small number of oil and gas stakeholders … have expressed an interest in a science-focused dialogue with experts from Environment Canada and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development on the environmental considerations of water management, including release of tailings ponds water by the oilsands sector.”

Industry downplays concerns

Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said the only interest he’s aware of involves water in tailings ponds at the end of a mine’s life.

“We’re going to have extra water left over that needs to be treated and processed and put back into the environment in some sense. We’ve started talking about how that will happen at the end of the mine life.

“There’s no current request to release anything in place.”

That’s small comfort, said Stewart. He points out that the reason the tailings ponds have been such an intractable problem is because it’s so difficult to get impurities such as salts and heavy metals out of the water. Stewart notes:

[quote]The problem they’ve had is that they can’t get the stuff out of the water and they’ve been trying for 40 years. For 40 years we’ve been hearing we’re just about to solve this problem and we haven’t.[/quote]

Not only is the cleanup proving difficult, it’s also expensive, Stewart said. He fears industry is lobbying government to allow it to release some level of process-affected water back into the environment.

Stringham said any released water would meet government standards.

“What we’re looking at is the water that would be liberated from tailings during the reclamation process that would then be treated to meet all the environmental criteria, and then put back into the environment.”

Booth suggested Alberta is approaching the idea with caution.

“More work is needed on treatment technology and science,” she said. “If potential technology is developed that may allow for tailings water to be released into the natural environment, then it may be something government would consider at that time.”

Will Water Act overhaul rein in groundwater use for fracking, LNG?

Will new Water Act rein in groundwater use for fracking, LNG?

Will Water Act overhaul rein in groundwater use for fracking, LNG?
Frack water pit in BC’s Horn River Basin (photo: Damien Gillis)

By Anna Novacek – republished from Energy Law BC

As the only province in Canada that does not regulate groundwater use, BC has been referred to as the “wild west” of groundwater.

Groundwater has and will continue to be relied on heavily by the LNG industry as a key source of the extensive amount of water necessary to conduct hydraulic fracturing. While the amount of water will vary between wells due to the changes in geology and the size of the reservoir, the volumes can be immense. EnCana Corp. states that between 200,000 and 1.2 million litres of water (roughly 1/10th to one half of an Olympic swimming pool) is needed to complete one well.

Surface water is regulated by short term water use approvals found under Section 8 of the Water Act [RSBC 1996] c. 483 (“the Water Act”). Surface water licensees are required to use water in accordance with the Water Act, the terms and conditions of their licence, and to pay annual water rentals. None of these requirements currently apply to groundwater users, even those using it on a large scale.

With a legislative proposal for a new Water Sustainability Act, however, this may be changing.

Updating century-old Water Act

BC’s current Water Act is 104 years old. The Water Act Modernization process began in 2009, and has included on-going workshops and consultations with the public, First Nations and stakeholders, resulting in a Water Act Modernization Report on Engagement in September 2010, and a Policy Proposal for the new Water Sustainability Act in December 2010. The original plan was to introduce the new Water Sustainability Act in 2012; however the “complexity of developing legislation with widespread implications for British Columbians” resulted in delay.

Public feedback sought

On October 18th, 2013 the province released a legislative proposal for a new Water Sustainability Act. A summary of this proposal can be accessed here. The proposal is open for public feedback until November 15th, 2013. It is expected to be submitted to the legislative assembly as a bill in 2014 for debate and final approval.

Key changes

The changes to provincial regulation of groundwater outlined in the legislative proposal for a Water Sustainability Act include:

  • Large volume users would be required to obtain authorization and pay application fees and annual water rentals to access groundwater.  Groundwater use for ‘domestic purposes’ would generally be exempt from this requirement
  • Information will be collected from all well owners to help improve understanding of aquifers and how they interact with lakes and streams
  • A database of all groundwater wells in the province will be established to help inform future water allocation decisions
  • The minimal standards under the Ground Water Protection Regulation BC Reg. 299/2004will be expanded to require the mandatory submission of well records for new wells, as well as requiring testing and disinfection of a water supply well after drilling to reduce the risk of contamination, and guidelines for ensuring contaminants are stored away from water supply wells.
  • The requirement regarding well drilling and the protection of groundwater will be updated. It is proposed that the WSA would clarify that drilling into or penetrating an aquifer is a ‘disturbance’ and requires a qualified well driller.

The complete legislative proposal is available here.

Devil’s in the details

The key question is whether the new Water Sustainability Act will be designed to restrict or minimize groundwater use in any way, or instead focus more on initial approvals, the provision of information and increasing reporting requirements. The application of exemptions within the new legislation will also be an important factor determining how industry will ultimately be affected.

Slocan Valley resident recounts disaster in paradise

Slocan Valley resident recounts disaster in paradise

Slocan Valley resident recounts disaster in paradise
An abandoned tanker carrying jet fuel for forestry helicopters battling summer fires lays overturned, leaking 33,000 litres of toxic fuel into the Slocan Valley’s Lemon Creek

by Nelle Maxey

It was a beautiful day.

The day was Friday July 26. It was just like any other sunny summer day in the Slocan Valley, located in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia 650 kilometres east of Vancouver.

It was the height of the tourist season. Bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and retail stores were swollen with visitors. Kayaks, canoes, rafts and tubes filled the Slocan River as swimmers cooled themselves at public and private beaches along the river. Others were in their gardens, assessing if the beans were ready for canning and the garlic ready for digging. People picked raspberries and blueberries from the loaded bushes, dug potatoes, plucked zucchini, and lettuce for dinner. It was a bumper year for gardens in the valley. Farmers were in their fields cutting hay. Market gardeners and local greenhouses irrigated their crops and picked produce to sell.

All this of course was normal. What wasn’t normal, however, was the drone of helicopters flying over the Slocan Valley’s Winlaw area, dumping water scooped from the river on the two-day old Perry Ridge fire.

Then disaster struck the Slocan Valley.

At about 1:30 p.m., a large tanker truck delivering jet fuel for the Ministry of Forests fire-fighting helicopters tumbled into Lemon Creek and dumped 33,000 litres of jet fuel into the swift-flowing creek which joins the Slocan River downstream of the spill.

The driver was on the wrong road. If the driver was on the right road, they would have used Uris Road north of the Lemon Creek bridge. The tanker was on Lemon Creek Road south of the bridge. This stretch of road is a narrow, decommissioned logging road that had been closed to traffic due to slides and crumbling banks.

In the official record of what happen, one report says the driver was to meet forestry personnel who would direct them to the helicopter staging area. This never happened. Instead, the driver proceeded on his own up Lemon Creek Road, past two signs that indicated the road was closed. The driver eventually found a place to turn around and was on his way back down to Highway 6 when a road bank gave way under the weight of the tanker.

The driver, not seriously injured after the accident, scrambled up the 15-foot bank and walked the 6 kilometres back to Highway 6 where a passing vehicle picked him up so he could report the accident. RCMP arrived on the scene at approximately 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon, although the fumes were so bad they could not approach the area. Once it was confirmed the truck was carrying jet fuel, the Interior Health Authority was notified at 6 p.m. on Friday evening. A few hours later, the first evacuation order was issued for 800 residents within 300 meters of Lemon Creek and the Slocan River for 3 kilometres upstream and downstream of the spill. It took many hours before the volunteer firemen and search and rescue teams could be organized to notify residents of the evacuation order. The first phone calls went out around midnight with volunteers going door-to-door in the most affected areas.

Meanwhile back at the spill site, officials estimate the tanker released the 33,000 litres of fuel in about 40 minutes. The fuel slick reached the Winlaw Bridge sometime around 6 p.m. (about the same time the local health authority was notified of the accident). Children swimming in the river near Appledale just north of Winlaw were later reported to have skin rashes. People who were canoeing in the area also reported health effects. Residents along the river between Winlaw and Lemon Creek reported that the smell was so strong by 5 p.m. that they closed up their homes and left the area. Within 24 hours of the accident the slick had traveled 60 kilometres: down the Slocan River, then into the Kootenay River to just above of the Brilliant Hydroelectric Dam at Castlegar. The first boom to stop the slick was established there on Saturday afternoon.

The plume was 2 to 3 kilometres long and 30 to 50 metres wide. A Ministry of Environment spokesperson said a boom was put in place at about 1:30 p.m. on Saturday just above the Brilliant Dam. The spokesperson said the boom’s effectiveness in containing the fuel was being monitored. Officials didn’t know at this time if fuel had entered the dam works.

The evacuation

Within hours of the first evacuation notice issued by the Interior Health Authority, the evacuation was expanded to include everyone in the valley. Anyone living within a 3 kilometre radius of the river between Lemon Creek and Playmore Junction (where Hwy 6 joins Hwy 3 to Nelson and Castlegar) were to evacuate. This affected 2,500 residences. As the fuel progressed down the river, health authorities had become worried sleeping people would not smell the fuel.

People with emergency services and volunteer fire departments began making phone calls and knocking on doors. The evacuation order included a “Do Not Use Water” order to “all users of water supplies within 10 kilometers downstream of the spill.” Later, the wording of the order changed to suggest water wells were okay to use. This was revised again to say shallow wells near the river might be affected. Today, a week after the accident the order explains that if your creek surface water or well water doesn’t smell like jet fuel, then it’s okay to use. Essentially, a smell test was the only test for private water supplies that didn’t originate from the rivers or Lemon Creek. The evacuation order also contained the following statement: “Jet fuel poses an immediate health risk to people. Exposure can burn skin, inhalation can harm respiratory systems and may cause brain damage. It is also dangerous to consume.”

The boundaries of the evacuation and a timeline of events are shown below:

Slocan spill map-Nelle Maxey

Fifty volunteer fire fighters from the four valley fire departments worked overnight and into Saturday to notify residents of the evacuation. Even though they had help, they concentrated on people closest to the river and spill site. They notified over 800 residents in all. Much of the notification went by word of mouth to neighbours, family and friends, all of which took place at night. Many residents in the north end of the valley left even before the order was issued due to the heavy concentration of fumes.

By noon on Saturday, the fumes had dissipated enough to lift the evacuation order. Residents trickled back into the valley all day Saturday. Unfortunately, at the north end of the valley some people returned to homes that were saturated with the smell of fuel. Even people’s gardens and hay fields were contaminated, not to mention the watering tanks for livestock had a layer of fuel on top of the water.

By this time, people in the valley settled down and most residents assumed the scare was over. Then the town hall meeting was held.

Many questions, few answers

On July 30, hundreds of residents from all areas of the valley jammed Winlaw Hall for a meeting to hear presentations from local government officials, provincial authorities and employees from the company involved. The meeting was not well organized. The handouts did not contain contact information or the names of the speakers. At first, many residents did not have their questions answered as they were told they were not on topic. Then the format was changed and residents were allowed to ask questions of any panellist. Many questions required responses from multiple panellists.

Winlaw town hall-Nelle Maxey

The health official immediately declared the serious nature of this event and explained the reasons for the evacuation. Though benzene was not a component of the jet fuel spilled in the creek, kerosene was a component and is dangerous by skin contact or ingestion. This applies to humans and animals. Aquatic life is at special risk as the specific type of fuel spilled (Jet Fuel A1) is listed to have a chronic toxic effect on aquatic ecosystems.

Residents were informed the “Do Not Use Water” order would stay in effect for 5 to 10 days at a minimum. The order applied to recreation in the river as well as water use from the river and Lemon Creek. All such water systems should be shut down so the contaminated water is not drawn into pipes and hot water heaters. Other surface water users from the creeks not affected directly should use their own judgement and apply the “smell test” to their water. Deep wells were unlikely to be affected. Shallow wells along the river should not be used as they may be contaminated.

This was the first time some residents heard the information about shallow wells and surface creeks. Individual water licence holders or well owners would not receive assistance to have their water tested. Registered purveyors on water systems with more than two users could receive assistance to have water testing done. Residents were also told to wash all vegetables 3 times for 3 minutes before use with potable water (a Catch-22 for residents without potable water supplies), and were also told not to buy local produce.

As residents poured into the line-up for the mic and began asking questions and sharing their stories, the consequences of the spill and the fact that little help had been available were becoming more apparent. The problems associated with the spill were most severe at the north end of the valley, from Lemon Creek to Winlaw. Homes were contaminated with the fuel smell. Fruit trees and vegetables were contaminated. Hay fields and pastures were contaminated. No water was available for livestock, poultry or gardens.

Many people were without any water for drinking, washing dishes, flushing toilets or showering. Similar water problems prevailed all along the river to the lower valley – especially contaminated hay and pastures, no water for gardens and livestock, as well as difficulty hauling enough water from potable water tank stations for resident needs. The meeting was held five days after the spill and potable water tanks had been set up in four locations in the valley only on the day of the meeting.

As of Saturday, August 3, the water and the rocks in Lemon Creek still smelled of jet fuel. There was a sheen visible and emulsion (milky-looking jet fuel and water mix) under rocks in the creek at the Lemon Creek bridge on Highway 6. The road has been remediated just before the accident site where fuel spilled from the tanker. There is no fuel on the road at the actual location where the truck went off. There is water from seeps in the rock face running across the road at that location. You can see this water in published photographs. Workers at the site agreed that the water run-off contributed to weakening the bank that collapsed under the truc, resulting in the fuel spill.

Recent developments:

  1. Until further notice, a “Do Not Use” order for drinking water and recreational use remains in effect for Lemon Creek, Slocan River and Kootenay River above and below Brilliant Dam. Fuel is still visible in the containment booms and along the shoreline.
  2. Garden vegetables, fruit, eggs, and dairy milk that were contacted by the fuel vapor are SAFE to consume as long as they do not smell like fuel or have a fuel sheen. Interior Health is advising residents to thoroughly wash fruit and vegetables with alternate water sources to remove any dirt and debris prior to consumption. Food products that have been irrigated with contaminated water AND smell like fuel should be discarded.
  3. Aproximately 1,000 litres of contaminated material has been recovered.
  4. RCMP have issued Vessel Operating Restrictions for the Slocan River from Lemon Creek to the Kootenay River, which will be lifted when the clean-up has been completed.
  5. The smell of jet fuel is still apparent in the Lemon Creek area and responders equipped with gas monitors have been testing the air quality outside residences close to the spill site.
  6. Many residents in the valley are still waiting for promised testing.
  7. A Resiliency Centre is being established at the Winlaw Elementary School to support residents with shower, lavatory and emergency support services. It is expected to open within the next couple of days.
  8. Polaris Applied Sciences from Kirkland, Washington was hired to conduct a Shoreline Clean-up and Assessment Technique, or SCAT. Leading the SCAT team is Polaris principal, Dr. Elliott Taylor, a world-renowned expert in spill clean-up operations. The assessment is underway and is already providing additional information which is helping to clean up the waterways by providing operational focus to the response teams and prioritizing where we focus our attention.
  9. Light “flushing” activities are being conducted to free product (Jet Fuel A1 / without additives) from stream banks and vegetation to make it available for collection. Nearly 1,000 metres of containment boom has been deployed throughout the Slocan River system and it is capturing any free-flowing product. The product is being skimmed off the water into a vacuum truck and removed to a licensed waste facility. In areas where soil is impacted, the soil is being removed and trucked to a separate licensed waste facility. A significant amount of contaminated water and soil was recovered.
  10. Experts continue to collect water samples, sediment samples, and fish and wildlife from the impacted water courses. Wildlife mortalities to date have been collected and sent to the laboratory for analysis.
  11. Water quality test results are being sent to the Interior Health Authority to assist in making a decision on when the “Do Not Use Water” order may be lifted.
  12. Responders equipped with gas monitors have been testing the air quality throughout the area of potential and observed influence. To date, atmospheric concentrations have been within established government standards; however, the smell of jet fuel is still occasionally apparent.

Nelle Maxey is a grandmother who lives in the beautiful Slocan Valley in south-eastern BC. She believes it is her obligation as a citizen to concern herself with the policies and politics of government at the federal, provincial and local level.


EnCana takes over funding of govt study into fracking water contamination


What promised to be a ground-breaking report into the effects of natural gas hydraulic fracturing on groundwater has devolved into a classic case of the fox in charge of the hen house.

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s hotly anticipated study into links between fracking and water contamination in Wyoming has been co-opted by the very company whose activities it was investigating – Canadian natural gas titan, EnCana.

ProPublica is reporting that the Wyoming study – a draft of which was published in 2011, stirring up significant controversy and opposition from industry – has been abandoned by the EPA to Wyoming state authorities and will now be funded by EnCana.

EnCana is also at the centre of a high-profile lawsuit regarding water contamination being brought in Alberta court by Jessica Ernst, an environmental consultant with 30 years experience working in oil and gas. Ernst herself released a landmark compendium of evidenceregarding water contamination from fracking last month.

The draft 2011 Wyoming report found carcinogenic fracking fluids in a pair of deep groundwater monitoring wells drilled into an aquifer in Pavillion, Wyoming. Local residents had been complaining that drilling “fouled their water has turned up alarming levels of underground pollution,” according to ProPublica – which has been doing leading-edge investigative work into the impacts of fracking on water from several years now.

Now, ProPublica reveals that the EPA is backing away from the research – which was the first of its kind to establish a scientific link between fracking and groundwater contamination – under significant pressure from the industry.

Industry advocates say the EPA’s turnabout reflects an overdue recognition that it had over-reached on fracking and that its science was critically flawed.

But environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.

Over the past 15 months, they point out, the EPA has:

  • Closed an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, Pa., saying the level of contamination was below federal safety triggers.
  • Abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, Texas, was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents’ faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding.
  • Sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate showing that leaking gas from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change, crediting better pollution controls by the drilling industry even as other reports indicate the leaks may be larger than previously thought.
  • Failed to enforce a statutory ban on using diesel fuel in fracking.

“We’re seeing a pattern that is of great concern,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. “They need to make sure that scientific investigations are thorough enough to ensure that the public is getting a full scientific explanation.”

The agency is publicly maintaining the above developments and issues are unrelated, yet, according to ProPublica, “In private conversations…high-ranking agency officials acknowledge that fierce pressure from the drilling industry and its powerful allies on Capitol Hill – as well as financial constraints and a delicate policy balance sought by the White House — is squelching their ability to scrutinize not only the effects of oil and gas drilling, but other environmental protections as well.”

Water Contamination from Fracking- Jessica Ernst Releases Groundbreaking Report

Water Contamination from Fracking: Jessica Ernst Releases Groundbreaking Report

Water Contamination from Fracking- Jessica Ernst Releases Groundbreaking Report
Environmental consultant Jessica Ernst on her land in Alberta (Colin Smith photo)

Jessica Ernst, a high-profile, Alberta-based environmental consultant, has released a comprehensive summary of science, facts and documents relating to groundwater contamination from the controversial practice of natural gas hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The culmination of ten years of research, the 93-page report is sure to cause a stir with the energy sector and its critics. Groundwater contamination has been a key concern surrounding the booming fracking industry.

“Jessica Ernst has made a strong case,” says Will Koop, BC Tapwater Alliance Coordinator. “Her collection provides excellent and technically friendly working tools, enabling the public to draw their own conclusions from the critical information. This is not just an invaluable document for North Americans, but for the world.”

Having consulted for the oil and gas industry for thirty years, Ernst became concerned about its impacts when they began to hit home – “living with dangerous contamination after EnCana hydraulically fractured my community’s drinking water aquifers.”

Ernst’s battle with Encana prompted her to bring a landmark lawsuit against the company in Alberta last year.

Ernst cites the industry’s propensity for secrecy and covering up impacts from its operations as a key motivation for compiling this broad spectrum of evidence. In the preface to her report, she quotes renowned energy journalist Andrew Nikiforuk: “As somebody who has reported for 20 years on this industry in [Alberta], I can tell you I’ve met hundreds of people in this province who have signed confidentiality agreements once their water was blown, once their livestock was killed, once a member of their family were injured, once they lost most of their grass or their trees as a result of fouling events, contamination events, air pollution, you name it.”

With this compendium of scientific data, correspondence with regulators, internal government and industry communications, transcripts from news reports, and links to a wide array of journalistic and academic references on the subject, Ernst aims to bring these issues into the light.

Ernst has gathered – in an unprecedented way – a large body of evidence which should raise serious questions for the public, regulators and policy makers about the environmental and human health impacts of fracking, particularly as we discuss a massive global expansion of the industry.

Download the full report here


Five Oil Spills in One Week: ‘Accidents’ or Business as Usual?


UPDATE: Since publication of this story this morning, yet another oil spill has come across the wire – a CP Rail spill from a derailment in northern Ontario – raising the total of spills this past week to SIX.

It’s been another appallingly bad week for proponents of pipeline safety and new oil infrastructure. If the industry’s woeful historical record – from the Exxon Valdez to BP’s Gulf of Mexico catastrophe to Enbridge’s trashing of the Kalamazoo – isn’t enough to turn people off of new pipelines and tanker routes, this slew of recent spills should seal the deal.

These incidents couldn’t have come at a worse time for the oil and pipeline industries, as US President Barack Obama prepares to announce his final decision in the coming months on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to Port Arthur, Texas.

Let’s review the record over the last week:

  • This past friday, ExxonMobil’s Pegasus Pipeline coated the streets of Mayflower, Arkansas with what CNN describes as a “smelly, asphalt-like crude” (i.e. diluted bitumen from the Alberta Tar Sands – the same kind the proposed Keystone XL would carry). These photos illustrate the effects of the spill on the sleepy Little Rock suburb – see the viral video captured by a local resident below.
  • Enbridge was back at it again last week, with the fourth recorded spill in two months along its Norman Wells Pipeline through the Northwest Territories. The company has leaked an estimated million litres of oil since February, 2011, from this one pipeline, prompting the National Energy Board to order an engineering assessment of the chronically malfunctioning line.
  • Meanwhile, back at the Alberta Tar Sands, Suncor was dealing with (and furiously downplaying) a leak from one of its massive waste ponds into the Athabasca River. This comes on the heels of a leaked memo to Conservative Resources Minister Joe Oliver, which acknowledged routine spillage from these ponds throughout the Tar Sands.
  • Over the weekend, Michigan was hit with another spill – this time up to 500 gallons of hydraulic oil spilled into the Lansing Grand River during an equipment malfunction at a local utility.
  • For those who would look to rail as an alternative to pipelines for transporting oil, there was the derailment last week of a CP Rail train, spilling an estimated 30,000 gallons of its crude cargo in western Minnesota.

This latest spate of spills should give pause to President Obama as he contemplates the Keystone XL – and to Canadian citizens and lawmakers debating several new pipeline proposals of our own.

It’s time to put to rest the notion that oil spills are “accidents”. They are, rather, a routine function of the business of extracting, transporting, and consuming oil – a good reason to spend our energy and resources on developing sustainable alternatives, not further entrenching our dependence on fossil fuels through new oil infrastructure.


Mother Nature, US Govt Chase Shell Out of Arctic

The Shell drilling rig that ran aground, The Kulluk (Greenpeace photo).
The Shell drilling rig that ran aground, The Kulluk (Greenpeace photo).

Shell Oil, the first energy company granted coveted Arctic drilling permits by the US Government, is shutting down operations for all of 2013, nearly as quickly as they began. Shell’s hand is being forced by the Interiror Department, following a scathing report which castigated the company for a series of misadventures in 2012 and early 2013.

The cancellation of this year’s drilling program represents an about-face from the confident predictions made last year by the Shell executive heading up the operation, David Lawrence. The Arctic drilling would be “relatively easy”, Lawrence told Dow Jones at the outset of Shell’s foray into Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

The report by the Interior Department, released earlier this month, found Shell was unprepared for Arctic drilling and failed to properly oversee its contractors. Department Secretary Ken Salazar put it succinctly on a telephone press conference discussing the report. “Shell screwed up in 2012,” remarked Salazar, who stipulated that future drilling would be contingent on more detailed plans and an independent audit of the company’s management systems.