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The Cost of Silence

How SWN has purchased its reputation

by Sarah Slaunwhite with files from Maxime Daigle

[Photo: M. Howe]
[Photo: M. Howe]

Myths of Contamination Unveiled

The dominant discourse being fed to New Brunswick by Southwestern Energy (SWN) is that no harm to the environment or to humans can result from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is commonly called. This view places fracking as separate from the pre-drilling process, as well as the post-fracking wastewater disposal. As there are no legal documents confirming which stage of the process is to blame for the overwhelming number of cases of water contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing, SWN has been able to keep boasting its “spotless” reputation.

Despite the statement on the SWN website stating their dedication to "safe and responsible natural gas exploration," evidence of contamination has been investigated on multiple occasions. Many cases have been brought to court addressing violations of code, as well as contamination of wells as a result of the hydraulic fracturing process.

Some of the cases include:

In 2008, an inspection revealed evidence of drilling fluids found in a nearby stream of an SWN site in Ozark, Arkansas. This discharge was not authorized, and violated the sediment control section of SWN’s permit, as there were no sediment controls at the site to prevent contamination of water. In 2009, another inspection of the same site exposed cracks in the levee of the reserve pit, as well as spilling of drilling chemicals in the area.

In January 2010, SWN faced a fine of $50,000 to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission for its failure to obtain a permit from the commission prior to installing a well conductor pipe.

Two years prior to this, SWN was in a lawsuit due to contamination of drinking water in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania as a result of using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to extract natural gas. Landowners initiated a lawsuit including violations of the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act, Negligence, Private Nuisance, Strict Liability, Trespass and seeking to set up a Medical Monitoring Trust.

In 2012, A.W. Realty Co. purchased a 5-acre property in Quitman, Arkansas after a lawsuit surrounding a water well owned by SWN spewed 288 million cubic feet of natural gas around the property and leaked into a pond. A.W Reality Co. is a subsidiary of SWN, and the cost of the property was not made public. 11 days after the initial incident, the gas spewing had slowed down to 6 million cubic feet per day. A trial has been set for April 15th, 2014. Large quantities of methane and hydrogen sulfide have been reported in the air surrounding the well.

If SWN claims they are not responsible for this leak, why then was the property purchased by a subsidiary during the lawsuit process?

In Texas and Arkansas, many cases uncovered benzene levels more than doubling a safe standard, high toluene levels, and other contaminants which have resulted in foul-smelling and cloudy water, skin irritation, brown clay-like drinking water containing sediment, dead livestock, abnormal milk production from goats, and newborn animals with birth defects after fracturing nearby wells by Southwestern Energy.

Controlling the Dominant Discourse

Despite the fact that Southwestern Energy has been involved in numerous lawsuits regarding violations of permits and contamination of wells, and although there has been evidence of the environmentally degrading impacts of the process, SWN continues to boast an environmentally-friendly and positive mandate.

Matt Sura, an environmental attorney in Boulder, Colorado, who represented conservation groups, stated in a report: “because they’ve bought everyone’s silence, they often state that they haven’t damaged anyone.”

SWN has gone to extreme legal and monetary lengths to keep their reputation clean. Sura’s statement is evidenced by the purchasing of land by SWN subsidiaries, as well as the payoffs made to families and communities to silence their legitimate health and environmental concerns.

Along with the monetary settlements, formal confidentiality agreements have been enforced for the people and families including clauses preventing them from voicing a connection between health problems and hydraulic fracturing. In one case, SWN paid $600,000 to three families in Arkansas in 2010 to avoid the unfolding of a legal case. 

Not only has Southwestern Energy failed to hold the trust of the communities in which it enters, it also fails to acknowledge any responsibility for the leaks, spills, spews, and sediment-filled water that seems to surface during and after SWN has taken over a site. If hydraulic fracturing in fact has no negative implications on health and the environment, why is there a lack of air quality and water quality monitoring occurring throughout and following the process?

Why are people being bought-out by SWN, and what is SWN withholding from the public with this silence?     

Dismissed Warnings

When Southwestern Energy began seeking to drill in New Brunswick to look for natural gas, Tim Holton, the lead lawyer handling a multi-million dollar class-action lawsuit in Arkansas, and dozens of cases filed against SWN by families in Pennsylvania, gave warnings to the New Brunswick government regarding allowing SWN to hydraulically fracture.                

SWN shareholder reports suggest that they’d rather keep New Brunswick in the dark as to the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, and their reputation. A recent shareholder brief included the following:

"In the Province of New Brunswick in Canada there are presently no hydraulic fracturing regulations, however the provincial government has been working on a new comprehensive regulatory framework that is expected to be released to the public in late 2013.

Increased regulation and attention given to the hydraulic fracturing process could lead to greater opposition, including litigation, to oil and natural gas production activities using hydraulic fracturing techniques. Additional legislation or regulation could also lead to operational delays or increased operating costs in the production of oil, natural gas, and associated liquids including from the development of shale plays, or could make it more difficult to perform hydraulic fracturing. The adoption of additional federal, state or local laws or the implementation of regulations regarding hydraulic fracturing could potentially cause a decrease in the completion of new oil and gas wells, increased compliance costs and time, which could adversely affect our financial position, results of operations and cash flows."

This focus on finances above all else runs counter to the public discourse that SWN has been promoting in public relations brochures, where they claim that New Brunswick has "significant regulations."

SWN’s brochure also notes “The short answer to any questions with regards to health, safety and the environment is this: We will not do it if it can’t be done right.”

This brochure, full of pictures of contented workers, gleaming quotes and pristine natural vistas, was one of the main components of the information package recently handed out to Elders of Elsipogtog First Nation in order to secure their signatures on a ‘consultation process.’ Elders also confirm that they were promised $200 for attending these ‘info session.’

Sarah Slaunwhite initiates improv with unsuspecting strangers.

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