NOEL, NS — At a recent community meeting over a proposed offshore shale oil project in western Newfoundland, a citizen asked about what would happen to the fracking waste waters. The company official assured her that she would not have to worry about that, because all the waste water will be going to Nova Scotia. The company, Shoal Point Energy, recently appointed former Newfoundland minister of Natural Resources, Shawn Skinner, to its board of directors.
But in bringing its fracking waste to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland is only following a track beaten years earlier by New Brunswick.
In spinning its way to keeping New Brunswick open for business for companies that want to frack for shale gas, that provincial government has wrapped up a tidy deal that sees all the fluid wastes produced going to Nova Scotia, virtually free of any scrutiny at either end.
Nova Scotia has over 4 years of experience with deeming fracking wastes to be no problem; and an important part of that is the government’s regulatory record in the 2009 approval for discharging untreated fracking wastes into the Town of Windsor's sewage treatment plant.
Already in 2009, Pennsylvannia was an outlier even among the leading shale gas-producing states in allowing this practice. Overwhelmingly, the primary concern has been the cocktails of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, which sewage treatment plants are not capable of removing. (Background here and here.) An important, but much more secondary, concern has been the levels of extreme salinity of the wastewater, and the effects that this has on plant equipment and biological processes.
Since the issue became public in October, Nova Scotia Environment has claimed that a consultant’s report commissioned by the Town of Windsor deemed the wastes “safe” for processing at the sewage treatment plant. Town Public Works director Don Beatty clarified that the report addresses only whether the salinity levels of the wastes were safe for the town to process.
Windsor's consultant used samples provided by Triangle Petroleum, the company responsible for all three attempts at hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia, and determined that the chlorine concentrations could, with specified precautions, be safely processed.
Documents obtained through Freedom of Information show that the September 2009 and earlier samples available to the consultant were only drawn from the surface of the wastewater ponds. Samples drawn in 2010 and 2011 were taken from the mid-level and bottom of the ponds, where concentrations were more than six times greater than with the surface samples. Nova Scotia Environment played no advisory role in setting the parameters of the consultant’s study, and in its review for the approval did not raise questions about the sampling, nor about the chemicals that are usually the primary concern.
When questioned specifically about the chemical component of the fracking waste waters that were shipped to Windsor, Environment spokesperson Lori Errington said, “The chemicals did not pose a concern to NSE – they are less than ½ of a per cent.” She responded to further questions trying to include support from the consultant’s report, before conceding that it only addressed chlorine and iron concentrations.
Errington said the determination that the chemicals ‘did not pose a concern’ was based on a review of the list of chemicals used provided by Triangle Petroleum, as well as by the unsupported claim from the company that they only make up half a percent of the total fracking fluid. One to two per cent is the usual industry claim - a figure which always figures prominently in industry public relations - because they know that it intuitively sounds minimal.
If an ordinary citizen had a farm or process water pond the size of one of the frack waste ponds in Kennetcook, which contain about seven million litres of water, and he or she spilled 35,000 litres of diesel fuel or some other hazardous waste into it, how far would they get telling Environment it was “only half a percent of the total fluid”? Would they be allowed to take it to a municipal sewage treatment plant to dispose of it?
The Department of Environment cannot be faulted for inconsistency. Their unexplained determination that there was no grounds for concern about the chemicals used in the fracking is also given as the rationale for providing no tracking or oversight whatsoever on where over four million litres in wastes went prior to the issuing of the permit to the Town of Windsor. This water may never be accounted for.
Radioactivity is the current hot button issue around the fracking wastes in Nova Scotia. While Environment joined waste management company Atlantic Industrial Services (AIS) in minimizing the issue when it became fully public, the discovery of elevated levels of radioactive material in the Kennetcook waste ponds seems to have finally pushed above the department’s ‘no problem’ threshold.
The top concern with processing to remove radioactive materials is that the radioactive materials themselves will be greatly concentrated. Proposed processer AIS has not replied to reporters since its role in discharging the wastes at the Windsor sewage treatment plant became known in October. The company had previously said a lot about its confidence in being able to treat for radioactivity, despite having no experience. But when asked then to explain in general terms about the proposed process, executives demurred to “proprietary information.”
The pilot project of processing for the radioactivity is already underway at the AIS facility in Debert, if not completed. So the residents near that facility, and the waste ponds in Kennetcook, are entirely dependent for their safety on the oversight will and capability of our Department of Environment. Their shady track record to date is the basis for whether or not such trust is warranted.
Millions of litres of frack waste water have gone unaccounted for in Nova Scotia, millions more have gone down the municipal sewer system in Windsor, and even millions more await a radioactivity processing that the public knows nothing about. Now we hear that hydraulic fracturing projects in Newfoundland will not have to worry about disposing of their waste waters. They'll just ship them here. No problem?