Noel, Nova Scotia - Our provincial government is currently engaged in a Review of Hydraulic Fracturing, more commonly known as fracking. Whenever you hear Ministers speaking to concerned citizens, they speak of looking at best practices for regulating the industry, and are sure to add that the review will look at whether fracking is something we want to have in Nova Scotia.
Whenever civil servants doing the actual work of the Review speak, you hear what was told the citizens of northern Hants County at an October 21 community meeting in Kennetcook: the crux of the review is focused on looking at best standards and protocols for regulation. But there is never any question about whether we should be fracking at all. Among other things the Review does not cover careful scrutiny of health effects, as the reviews in New York and Quebec have recently turned to.
Whatever the scope of the current Review, a fundamental pillar is to look at our experience with fracking in Nova Scotia to date. We have had 5 wells drilled for fracking in 2007 and 2008, with three of them actually fracked. The government and the civil servants say all the right things about that experience being part of the review.
But it appears that they only engage with concerned citizens when it is time to put out fires. When the flames burst out into view, so do the civil servants and ministers- six of them dispatched to the small meeting in Kennetcook in October. Even then, there was no substantive discussion about what took place in Hants County. At most, when citizens are showing the highest levels of concern, there are repetitions of the same very general assurances that the Departments concerned are learning, and it is all part of the Review.
Fracking is both very controversial and very complex. The civil servants and the government talk about having better regulations. But what about the capability to regulate? What we have right now, is the regulators judging their own record. This is another difference between our government’s review and those underway in New York and Quebec: Ours is entirely an in-house civil servant and government affair. If our government wants to keep looking at the record out of sight, that just makes public scrutiny harder. It requires Freedom of Information requests, like the one that NOFRAC filled in February of 2011.
Waste water disposal – To be determined?
The 2007 Hants County Shale Gas Project Environmental Management Plan, one of the key documents in the FOI request, stipulates that the method of fracking waste water disposal had not been determined and was to be developed in consultation with Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment. [page 41 of PDF] This was echoed in each of 3 drill site industrial approvals issued in 2008, which all say that “Waste water will be transported to an approved waste disposal facility.”
We currently know that 7.3 million litres of waste water, later found to be radioactive, was transported to the town of Windsor. Another 4.5 million litres is being held by Atlantic Industrial Systems, in Debert. This was transported in 2011. Another 11 million litres is still in two ponds in Kennetcook, awaiting treatment.
But what happened with waste fluids that we know were taken away from drill sites in 2008 and 2009, before the Town of Windsor was taking wastes at its sewage treatment plant?
Our NOFRAC Freedom of Information request in February 2011 returned 2,000 pages of documents, with almost none of it covering waste handling or disposal - despite this being one of the central issues in the controversy over fracking. This “gap” was noted in a follow-up FOI a year later, and several hundred more pages were received. A substantial proportion of these documents had been produced after the original FOI request, and included what alerted Nova Scotians to radioactivity in the waste water- first reported in a Media Co-op story.
Most of the other documents in this second batch were extensive laboratory results from chemical analysis going back to 2008. Among the pre-2011 correspondence with Triangle Petroleum (the company doing the fracking) and internal Nova Scotia Environment discussions, only a handful of pages make as much as an oblique or passing mention of waste water disposal. By comparison, there are from the same period hundreds of pages of such correspondence devoted fully to aspects of fresh water withdrawals to supply the fracking.
There is not a word mentioned in any pre-2011 documents about where any of the waste fluids went or were expected to go, or what treatment processes were to be used. In a chain of correspondence between the author and the department, this puzzling lack is pointed to. The department’s FOI Administrator copied all of the queries to the principal NSE staff who had handled the file, and after more searches determined that there was still no documentation on waste water disposal.
Follow-up queries whether the department otherwise knew where fluids had been disposed of, elicited the final answer from Nova Scotia Environment that; “The company was not required to report on disposal to the department.” A CBC reporter received the same final answer to his questions.
We know from documents secured through Freedom of Information that the waste storage pond at the Triangle Kennetcook #2 well was mostly drained in June 2008 [page 14 of PDF]. Fracking uses massive amounts of water treated with chemicals pumped under extreme pressure, with a varying percentage of the fluids returning to the surface and requiring disposal. Industry sources place that ‘flowback’ amount in March 2008 for Kennetcook #2 at 3.5 million litres. Added to this was an unspecified amount of ‘formation waters’ already in the shale bed that came up with the first round of high pressure testing in May. Since more formation waters were likely to come to the surface with the next round of high pressure testing, the storage pond had to be drained to make room.
With precipitation gain to the Kennetcook #2 waste pond, while making allowances for it only being “mostly drained,” more than 4 million litres of fracking wastes were pumped off and transported away in June 2008.
Where Did It All Go?
Had Nova Scotia Environment discussed the disposal of waste water with Triangle during the permitting of the first two wells fracked in 2008, as per the Environmental Management Plan, they would not have been surprised to find the waste water in the storage ponds when the fracking processes were completed .
After 2008, Nova Scotia Environment industrial approvals for fracking specifically required that there be only temporary metal storage tanks on site, and that all fluids be transported to an approved waste disposal facility. The only drill site fracked by Triangle under this new approval stipulation was at Noel Lake in April 2009. There indeed was and is no storage pond on the site. Therefore, waste fluids from that fracking process, along with the over 4 million litres taken from Kennetcook # 2 a year earlier, were transported and discharged somewhere.
Heard locally at the time of the Noel Lake fracking was that the waste water was being taken to the Imperial refinery in Dartmouth, which does process its own waste water before discharging into Halifax Harbour.
Unfortunately the first question is whether our provincial regulator was paying attention at all. The simple question was put to the department’s communications director: “Does the department know where those wastes went, and to what processing?”
Instead of the usual assurance that she would get back to me when she found out, the question was immediately passed on to a District Manager to deal directly with me. From there it was passed to at least one more senior staff person, and after two work days there was an answer of sorts.
The answer, in relation to waste waters we now know to be radioactive, was this; “As the Department did not attribute a significant risk associated with these ponds and the water contained in them, the Department had no reason to verify where the water was ultimately disposed.”
In other words: no answer to the question of whether the department knew anything about the disposition of the wastes in question. Nova Scotia Environment was not paying attention because they determined that there was not a need to. The ‘verification’ they elected not to do was making even the most cursory of checks on self-regulation by the oil company and its contractors.
See the blog, What The Regulator Has to Say for Itself' for the full reply from Nova Scotia Environment, and some comments by this author.
 Email communication to the author.
 Even though the storage ponds were designed and built according to industry standards of frack waste pits, Nova Scotia Environment made the assumption that the ponds were solely for their initial use of storing fresh water to supply the fracking process. [page 1 of PDF]