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Bay of Fundy not a "Petri Dish"

Colchester County overturns approval for frack waste discharge into sewer system.

by Ken Summers

County overturned approval for AIS to discharge fracking wastes into the sewer system
County overturned approval for AIS to discharge fracking wastes into the sewer system

"In the end the Committee feels it is not the role of the Municipality to allow the Bay of Fundy to be a petri dish for fracking wastewater."

Colchester County Sewer Use Decision May 16, 20133


TRURO, NOVA SCOTIA -- On May 16th, the Colchester County Committee decided to overturn the approval to allow the discharge of fracking wastes into its sewer system, stressing the importance of citizen participation in arriving at their decision.

The two page decision issued by the Colchester County Sewer Use Committee judiciously covers the major issues, and as a whole is a modest but remarkable expression of the precautionary principle.

The citizens of Nova Scotia still have to decide what is to be done with the millions of litres of fracking wastes that remain in limbo in this province. This is all the more true for the Kennetcook area community that is host to the two 5 year old Kennetcook “frac pits”… as the industry calls them. 

The same is true for residents around the Atlantic Industrial Services Debert facility, who are host now for one-third of the Kennetcook wastes, plus another 4 million litres of wastes brought from New Brunswick by AIS under especially questionable circumstances. We will return to that in the account that follows.

Atlantic Industrial Services, as the applicant to Colchester County for discharging the fracking wastes, has been forced into an unfamiliar and fairly high profile public role.

The provincial government has so far been very successful at staying out of sight on this issue, leaving Colchester County to deal with all the political heat and controversy. In the little that Nova Scotia Environment has been forced to say publicly, gives the impression that they only do what is expected of a regulator in this case, which is to say examine and pass judgment on actions and proposals taken by the waste management company, AIS.

While managing to stay in the background, our government, through the Department of Environment,  has since early 2011 actually played a very active role: as facilitator of fracking in the province, rather than a regulator.

Prior to early 2011- 3 years after the fracking wastes went “temporarily” into the storage ponds in Kennetcook, Nova Scotia Environment seemingly had a working policy of neglect. The extensive documentary evidence secured through Freedom of Information shows Environment paying only episodic and fitful attention to the waste ponds.

During that time, AIS was establishing itself as a handler of fracking wastes brought from New Brunswick, with a pattern of playing fast and loose with at least the purpose and intent of the regulatory process. During a critical period of over a year, the unsupervised company established itself in this new line of business. The Freedom of Information documents show no reports of what the company was doing, and no other indications that Environment was even generally aware.

When Environment did wake up in 2011, they did not impose sanctions, restrictions or penalties on AIS. The supposed “regulator”-  on whom Nova Scotians must rely-  instead facilitated AIS by after the fact fitting the letter of the law to the company’s actions.

AIS Looks To Get Into Fracking Wastewater Disposal and Treatment Business

The timeline for the Nova Scotia government’s management of fracking wastewater disposal begins in 2008 with Atlantic Industrial Services wanting to get into this growth business. The AIS Debert facility operating approval from the Department of Environment did not allow them to process 'Waste Dangerous Goods', which across Canada includes hydraulic fracturing wastes.

AIS submitted in November 2008 an extensive Environmental Assessment for construction of a facility upgrade at Debert that would allow it to process fracking wastes. The document includes specifications for the processing, specific buildings and equipment to be added, and connects this to the business opportunity then opening up for the processing of fracking wastes. 

AIS Detours to Windsor Sewage Treatment Plant

But two months later, AIS decided to approach the Town of Windsor with the much lower cost option of discharging untreated fracking wastes into the town’s sewage treatment plant. This was enabled by Environment’s early acceptance of Triangle Petroleum’s (responsible for the three wells that have currently been fracked in the Kennetcook-Noel area) unsubstantiated claim that the fracking wastes in its Kennetcook storage ponds had no chemical components of concern.

Very few chemicals were tested for, and Environment deemed the sole issue with the contents of the waste ponds to be high salinity.

So fracking wastes become “brine drilling wastes,” which is how they were presented to the Town of Windsor.

Remarkably, Environment made not even cursory enquiries into the practice of dumping fracking wastes into municipal sewage treatment plants, and approved the discharges in October 2009. That was a month after the now moot Environment approval for construction of the AIS Debert facility upgrade- which was never done.

Multiple Freedom of Information requests by the action group NOFRAC were aimed directly at the very thin documentation on where any of the Kennetcook fracking wastes had gone.

In 2010 and 2011, 7.3 million litres of fracking wastes were discharged by AIS into the Windsor sewage treatment plant. But that was dug up in October 2012 by a CBC reporter, not disclosed by Environment through the earlier FOI process.

Where Did Those 7.3 Million Litres of Wastes Come From?

Questions immediately rained down on Town of Windsor staff, Council and the Mayor. From all the interviews it is clear that the wastes were presented to them as coming from Kennetcook, and this has remained their understanding. Environment did not comment on where the wastes came from. And the AIS managers who had the month before been available for lengthy interviews, suddenly returned no calls from media.

It took months more to pry the Windsor documents out of the Department of Environment. Included in the Freedom of Information release were the AIS monthly reports of the Windsor discharges that began in March 2010.

These monthly volume reports show that the pace of discharges coming into the Windsor plant increased by December 1, 2010 to the allowed limit of one truck load of fracking waste per day. The discharges continued at this pace 7 days a week, for at least 6 months. During this time over 5 million out of the 7.3 million litre total were discharged.

With 90% of that total amount already discharged at Windsor, the Town passed on to AIS an Environment request to know where the discharged wastes were coming from. The company answered on 9 May, inserted into the usual one line monthly report for the April 2011 discharges: AIS said the wastes were coming from the storage ponds in Kennetcook. This confirmed what had always been, and remains, the Town’s understanding.

Triangle Petroleum Says Frack Wastes to Windsor Did NOT Come From Kennetcook

Triangle Petroleum CEO Peter Hill and his management team took over the company and moved it from Calgary to Denver in November 2010… the beginning of that span of time when the monthly discharge reports add up to over 5 million litres, delivered in a truck load every day.

Hill told Media Co-Op editor Miles Howe that during his tenure no wastes left the Kennetcook ponds, until the much documented and discussed transport of the wastes to AIS Debert that began and was aborted in November 2011- well after the last of the wastes discharged into Windsor sewage treatment plant. Hill is unequivocal on that no wastes were taken from the Kennetcook ponds, repeats the point, and the NOFRAC FOIPOP files have substantial documented independent corraboration of that.

At this point, we have a clear contradiction between what AIS was telling Windsor ("all from Kennetcook"), and what Triangle is telling the public ("nothing from Kennetcook") -- with Nova Scotia Environment apparently uninterested in which is true.

The Role of Nova Scotia Environment

Documents in the NOFRAC Freedom of Information files show a sharp spike in the Department's concern and activity over the Kennetcook ponds starting in April 2011. Field visits are made to the ponds, and Triangle is pressed much more about its plans for disposal.

The ponds were essentially still full, yet the AIS trucks had been rolling into Windsor daily for some time. Hence the May 9 query to Windsor about where the wastes are coming from.

The verbal answer from the Town that the wastes come from Kennetcook, after the Town asked AIS, was collected by the regular Department field inspector for the Windsor sewage treatment plant, and is passed on to a number of Environment professional staff who handle the Triangle file. [page 34]

We see in the AIS monthly discharge reports that 3 weeks later- May 31, 2011- the discharges into Windsor end, and AIS notifies the Town there will not be any more.

Meanwhile, AIS had been bringing fracking wastes from New Brunswick since 2010.

Some time between May 31 and July 2011 those New Brunswick wastes began arriving at the AIS Debert facility. This was confirmed by Chris O’Connell of Environment, speaking to Belmont resident Heidi Verhuel.

During this time negotiations were intensifying between the Department of Environment and Triangle’s Peter Hill over the draining of the Kennetcook ponds. The company had been holding out a year for permission to re-inject the fracking wastes into one of the wells, and had argued strenuously against trucking out the waste water.

While this discussion was going on, Environment requested and received from the Town of Windsor the accumulated monthly reports which show just how large was the amount of wastes that had gone into Windsor for the months immediately previous: over 5 million litres. 

So we have in a two month period:

  • The wastes that did not come from Kennetcook stop going into the Windsor sewage treatment plant.
  • Shortly after, wastes from New Brunswick start coming into AIS Debert.
  • Department of Environment is well aware that the Kennetcook ponds are essentially full, and demanding of Triangle that they be drained.
  • The Department gathered a lot of information on the discharges into Windsor.

Whatever the benign neglect in months past, we can safely conclude that Environment is no bystander to whatever has transpired. Instead, they seem to have been playing traffic cop for fracking wastes that AIS has brought from New Brunswick.

Recap: AIS Debert, and Processing Fracking Wastes

Apparently Environment decided to ‘overlook’ the rather glaring questions of how AIS had used and potentially abused the department’s approval for discharging the so-called “brine wastes” at Windsor Sewage Treatment Plant.

This still left questions over the status of the AIS Debert facility: Why was it bringing in fracking wastes- first from New Brunswick, and then from Kennetcook?

As we saw above, AIS had in 2008 applied for permission for upgrading construction- specifically meant to process fracking wastes. That Environmental Assessment was approved. This gave AIS the green light for the construction, after which they could undergo testing and apply for the change to their Industrial Approval that would allow the company to process fracking wastes.

AIS did not do any of that.

They instead chose that low cost detour to Windsor sewage treatment plant. Now in 2011, with the always questionable Windsor option removed, Environment appears to have rewarded AIS for its corporate practices by simply allowing it to process fracking wastes at the Debert facility.

Environment spokesperson Lori Errington has repeatedly insisted, contrary to the evidence of the AIS Environmental Assessment, that the company “has always been approved to process fracking wastes.” Errington has also tried to insist that fracking wastes are not waste dangerous goods that AIS is prohibited from processing. But Environment documents show the staff engineer of the project repeatedly saying the opposite. “He didn’t mean to say that,” reports Errington.

Presumably, Environment came up with some ad hoc criteria for processing improvements before letting AIS go ahead. How do these possible or hypothetical processing capability improvements compare with what AIS promised in the Environmental Assessment? More to the point, who is going to make these judgement calls now?

What Comes Next?

Colchester County did more than its job. Our provincial government abdicated setting any standards, and tried to get things "taken care of" out of view. Colchester County stepped back, asked the right questions, and asked for public participation.

This is not a Colchester County problem, or a Hants County problem. What to do with these wastes, and what to do about fracking, is a problem for all Nova Scotians.

The NDP government tells us it will all be taken care of by the Hydraulic Fracturing Review. But the scope of the issues being looked at is far too limited, as is the scope of who is part of the Review. Ministers make broad claims that the Review is about finding out whether fracking can be safe. But the limited number of civil servants involved speak only of looking at "best practices," and are the same people who have managed the process being discussed here.


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