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Sloughs of Despond

May 11, 2012

Sloughs of Despond

Fracking wastewater ponds languish in Hants County

by Steven Wendland

Newly disclosed documents reveal that open air tailings ponds from hydraulic fracturing—such as this one in Hants County, NS—contain high levels of radioactive contaminants and most likely other known carcinogens. The Nova Scotian provincial government is currently reviewing its regulations around hydraulic fracturing. Photo: Steven Wendland

HALIFAX—Hydraulic fracturing wastewater shown to contain high levels of radioactive contaminants has been sitting in two open containment pits in Hants County, Nova Scotia, since 2007, the Media Co-op has learned.

A Freedom of Information request has also revealed that the water likely contains a slew of other chemicals, including known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

Triangle Petroleum Corporation, the Denver-based company responsible for creating the ponds, announced on April 16, after having stalled on remediating the wastewater for over four years, that it was “contemplating a total exit” from its operations in Nova Scotia. The company’s announcement coincided with the provincial NDP’s announcement that its review of the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, initially slated for a Spring 2012 release, would be extended into 2014.

The first company to explore Nova Scotia’s shale formations for natural gas using the contentious horizontal-drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, Triangle had been threatening for some time to renounce its 10 year exploration lease on 475,000 gross acres—known as The Windsor Block—spanning Kings and Hants Counties along the Minas Basin.

In an email to Nova Scotia Environment (NSE) dated August 29, 2011—obtained through a NS Freedom of Information request—Dr. Peter Hill, at the time Triangle’s CEO, threatened his company’s withdrawal from the province.

Should the [fracking] Review fail to support deep re-injectivity [sic] of formation waters back to their formation of origin, or ban, restrict or delay shale gas activity for a long period, then we will drain the ponds by the then best method available, remediate all sites, return our licenses back to the Nova Scotia Department of Energy and cease any further investment in the Province of Nova Scotia.

The wastewater comprising the ponds was generated in 2007 when Triangle drilled and fracked two wells in the Kennetcook area of Hants County.

NSE and Triangle have since been at loggerheads concerning the best method of remediation for the 15 million litres of wastewater—the former insisting on trucking the wastewater to appropriate treatment facilities, the latter on injecting the “formation waters back to their formation of origin,” or, namely, drilling an on-site disposal well and injecting it into the earth.

While the deep-well reinjection of fracking wastewater is common industry practice, it runs counter to NSE’s best practices guide.

And for good reason, according to Jennifer West, groundwater coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre (EAC).

“When you punch a hole through the overlying rock formations, which act as seals, and then dump millions of litres of wastewater into that hole, there’s no way you can guarantee that it’s not going to change the quality of the drinking water,” she says. “The practice is appalling given the number of chemicals and anthropogenic contaminants in wastewater.”

Families of chemicals that Triangle used in its fracking slurry for the Kennetcook wells (among others):

Diethylene glycols: An endocrine disruptor known to adversely affect development, the reproductive, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, respiratory and nervous systems, and to impair function of the kidneys, liver, skin, and eyes.

Isopropanols: Known to have adverse effects on the sensory organs, the liver, kidneys, brain, and blood, and the immune system.

Methanols: A mutagen known to have the preceding effects.

Sodium persulphates: Causes skin, eye, sensory organ, and respiratory, gastrointestinal, nervous and immune system damage.

Trisodium nitrilotriacetate monohydrates: Known to cause cancer, and gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, kidney and ecological damage.

In December 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft report on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater in Pavilion, Wyoming. “Using a lines of reasoning approach,” the study found that “inorganic and organic constituents associated with hydraulic fracturing ha[d] contaminated ground water at and below the depth used for domestic water supply.”

Reinjection has been linked to a marked increase in seismic activity in the American Midwest over the past ten years. According to the US Geological Survey, “the injection of [fracking] wastewater into the subsurface can cause earthquakes that are large enough to be felt…and cause damage.”

Earlier this year, Ohio’s Natural Resources Department introduced stringent new regulations for oil and gas drilling companies after several earthquakes in the state had been linked to fracking-wastewater reinjection.

Although its development plan application, submitted to the NS Department of Energy in 2008, states that Triangle would commit “to safeguarding the environment…through the application of best practices,” the company has been stalwart in its opposition to NSE’s insistence on draining the ponds and treating, rather than reinjecting, the wastewater. The company has stated that trucking the wastewater to treatment facilities would be too expensive and would undermine road safety.

Ken Summers is a member of the Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition (NOFRAC) who lives near the Kennetcook ponds. He believes the lengthy impasse highlights the slapdash nature by which shale gas exploration activity in Nova Scotia has emerged.

“Up until they launched their review [of hydraulic fracturing in April 2011], the provincial government was relying on regulations designed to cover conventional drilling, which are insufficient mechanisms when applied to the so-called unconventional method of hydraulic fracturing,” says Summers.

Summers contends that the Kennetcook ponds are the direct result of an absence of fracking-specific provincial wastewater remediation regulations, and are exemplary of a savvy company taking advantage of the tenderfoot provincial government.

“The industry is so new and has developed so fast that provincial and state jurisdictions are way behind the industry players in terms of knowledge and expertise,” he explains.

According to the Kennetcook drill-site plan Triangle submitted to the province, the pits were dug to hold freshwater to be used during the fracking process.

“NSE notes in its documentation that it didn’t give approval for waste ponds, that no permits were issued,” explains Summers.

In 2008, when NSE realized the ponds were holding wastewater, it issued Triangle a two-year temporary storage permit during which time Triangle was to have the water transported to treatment facilities in Dartmouth and Debert, 20 kilometres west of Truro. When the temporary permit expired in June 2010, with no remedial action having taken place, NSE issued a one-year extension with the proviso that by the end of the one-year term they expected definitive plans for draining the ponds and reclaiming the sites.

In August, 2011, two months beyond the extension deadline, with Triangle still pressuring for reinjection, and proposing they “wait for the decisions and recommendations of the Review Committee on Hydraulic Fracturing that [were] expected later [that] year,” NSE demanded that the ponds be drained before winter freeze, or November 1, which Triangle claimed unfeasible, suggesting instead “the gradual use of the brines as a de-icing/wetting agent on Nova Scotia roads.”

Months later, Triangle agreed to drain one of the ponds before winter freeze, which they began to do on November 21. Shortly thereafter, on December 2, NSE received test results showing the wastewater contained high levels of radionuclides, and consequently, owing to the fact that there is no facility in Atlantic Canada capable of treating radioactively contaminated wastewater, suspended all drainage activity.

Radionuclides are unstable forms of nuclides, a generic term for the atomic form of an element. The most common radionuclides in groundwater are radon, radium, thorium and uranium. Radon and uranium occur most commonly in shale and granite formations, which comprise a significant portion of Nova Scotia’s geology. The EPA states that although “most drinking water sources have very low levels of [naturally occurring] radioactive contaminants,” human activity can incite drinking water contamination “through accidental releases of radioactivity or through improper disposal practices.”

Exposure to high levels of radon and uranium has been linked to bone and internal organ cancers in humans.

“They were trucking water out for less than two weeks in five or six trucks a day to Debert, and part of it is sitting in a pond in Debert, but most of it is still sitting in the pond in Kennetcook,” says Summers.

Compounding the matter, the water that was already drained and trucked to the Atlantic Industrial Services facility in Debert before NSE suspended drainage activity now has to be removed from that location because it cannot be treated at that facility.

“Who’s to say where they’re going to go from here, because now we’re talking about a much more expensive process for the company, so it’s back into limbo,” says Summers.

Meanwhile, one of the Kennetcook ponds is leaking and has spilled over in heavy rain, augmenting concerns within the community over groundwater contamination.

The EPA draft report on groundwater in Pavilion, Wyoming, found that “high concentrations of benzene, xylenes, gasoline range organics, diesel range organics, and total purgeable hydrocarbons in ground water samples from shallow monitoring wells near [wastewater] pits indicates that pits are a source of shallow ground water contamination in the area of investigation” representing “potential source terms for localized groundwater plumes of unknown extent.”

Oil and gas companies are not lawfully compelled to disclose the chemicals they use in their slickwater, the proprietary nature of which can make it notoriously difficult when it comes to delineating which toxic elements have been introduced by industry and which are naturally occurring.

A recent EAC Freedom of Information request has disclosed the group of industrial chemicals that were used in the fracking fluid for the Kennetcook wells (See sidebar).

“Chemicals associated with fracking are just the tip of the iceberg,” says West. “We found dozens of dangerous substances which were used for fracking in Hants, but also for drilling and site preparation. We found these through a Freedom of Information request—they weren’t handing out this information at an Open House in Kennetcook.”

The potential for the contamination of our drinking water is multifold, yet the result is singular, according to West.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the methane, or wastewater, the natural contaminants, or the chemicals that get into our drinking water, it’s just that something [toxic] can get into our drinking water and that’s not acceptable.”

Despite numerous delays and Triangle’s departure announcement, NSE remains firm that the company will clean up its mess. “They are required to meet the terms and conditions of their approval, which includes draining the ponds, treating the wastewater at an approved facility, and returning the site to its natural state before the end of this year,” says Karen White, NSE Director of Communications.

White further emphasizes that “any materials that meet federal legislation requirements under the Nuclear Substances Act and/or the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act must be shipped to an appropriate facility out of province.”

West maintains reservations, given that the government, to no avail, has been asking the company for almost five years to comply with regulations. She says more decisive action needs to be taken. "[Triangle] should be forced to immediately clean up the ponds in Kennetcook before drinking water is impacted by these chemicals, and be held accountable if contamination has occurred."

Steven Wendland is a graduate student and contributing member of the Halifax Media Co-op.

This article was originally published by the Halifax Media Co-op.

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