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Fracking Wastewater the new NORM in Nova Scotia?

Colchester County Council considers application to treat frack-wastewater

by Miles Howe

One of the frack-wastewater holding tanks in Kennetcook. Clearly leaking. [Photo: Steve Wendland]
One of the frack-wastewater holding tanks in Kennetcook. Clearly leaking. [Photo: Steve Wendland]

Truro, Nova Scotia – Guided by its own regulatory process, Colchester County Council yesterday determined that it would indeed allow its municipal engineer to consider Atlantic Industrial Services' (AIS) application to dump “treated” frack-wastewater down the Debert sewer system.

The engineer's recommendation, whatever it might be, can subsequently be opposed by council, and potentially reversed.

It has recently been publicly revealed that Atlantic Industrial Systems (AIS), who made the application, is in possession of not only 4.5 million litres of waste water from fracked wells in the Kennetcook area, but has also received approximately 11 million litres of fracked wastewater from the Penobsquis area of New Brunswick, in two separate shipments, in 2010 and 2011. According to AIS, all of this water is being held in on-site lagoons.

AIS's Debert facility has a holding capacity of 35 million litres and claims that it has the technology to treat the 15.5 million litres of wastewater, which is currently considered a radioactive substance due to its elevated levels of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM). These may include uranium, thorium and potassium, among other radioactive substances.

Clint Stewart, senior vice-president of Envirosystems, Atlantic Industrial Systems' Dartmouth-based parent company, notes that his company has already carried out tests on water samples from the Kennetcook wells; tests which came out under the allowable limits for NORMs. Stewart perceives the popular concern over this fracked wastewater to be overblown.

“This is a business that we do day in and day out,” Stewart told The Halifax Media Co-op. “We take wastewater from every heavy industrial location in Atlantic Canada. So these waters are no more different than any of those...We've definitely seen more complex waters than this, for sure.”

Stewart is confident that his company can treat the wastewater, and while he won't reveal the exact process by which water will be rendered non-radioactive, he says it is primarily a matter of separating radioactive sediment, which flowed back up from the Earth's crust, from the wastewater.

“There is very little by-product, because 99% of this product is water,” Stewart said. “There most likely will be – and we really won't know until we get to the bottom of the lagoons – some sediment that will drop out. But our process will remove that as we go through. And we will collect it. We do that now for other wastewaters. And then it will be sampled and analyzed, and depending on the analysis, [we'll determine] where it will go for disposal.”

A briefing provided to Colchester County Council earlier in the month noted that the water would be run through a “carbon absorption system.” Stewart refused to publicly release the test results in question.

“That's a little too much to ask,” said Stewart.

Responsibility for the wastewater, of which there is another 11 million litres (currently in need of direct attention) being held in lagoons in the Kennetcook area, has become something of a political hot potato. It also may have run both Nova Scotia’s Department of the Environment (NSE) and AIS into direct conflict with federal regulations regarding the transport, possession and storing of radioactive materials.

Packaging and transporting NORMs, depending on their level of radioactivity, requires specific permits from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. NSE would have known this, and would most likely have been aware that Nova Scotia's bedrock does contain radioactive elements, which, if drilled into, would most likely come back up to the surface in frack-wastewater.

Yet NSE allowed 4.5 million litres to be shipped (approximately 132 truckloads at an average of 34,000 litres per truck), and apparently never tested the water itself, or required the water to be tested by Triangle Petroleum Corp, the Denver-based company who remains financially responsible for re-mediating the drill sites and treating the frack wastewater in question.

According to NSE, it was AIS who stumbled upon the fact that the wastewater was radioactive, only after receiving it.

“The water contains NORMs,” Lori Errington, communications officer with NSE told the Halifax Media Co-op. “But it wasn't know that it contains NORMs until some of the water was transported to Debert...It was realized when they were testing the water that it contained NORMs.”

NSE's public position at this point appears to be to downplay the presence of NORMs in the frack- wastewater.

“We want people to understand these are naturally occurring,” said Errington. “These are things you would find in rocks in Nova Scotia. It exists in nature. It's not radioactive materials from a nuclear power plant…They got into the water during the drilling process, and we want to see them removed before the water is treated as wastewater.”

Clint Stewart from AIS agrees.

“That's where environmentalists are stirring it up,” said Stewart. “There's probably not a water in Nova Scotia that does not have some level of NORM in it, because Nova Scotia, because of its geological make-up, is very high in those materials. If you were to go down and sample somebody's well-water where those levels are high, quite likely you'd get results that are higher than in these waters...In my personal opinion this has been hyped up by movies like 'Gasland.' Some of the large environmentalist groups have made the rounds, especially last year...to stir people up. And that's where they get their funding. And there's a lot of people [who are] sort of 'Not In My Backyard'.”

As for the concerned citizens, a full contingent packed the viewing gallery of Colchester Municipal Council's September 27th sitting, where the debate over the final resting place of the frack-wastewater continued.

Roger Hunka, director of intergovernmental affairs for the Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council, addressed municipal council, and in no uncertain terms noted that the decision to allow AIS to treat or not to treat the frack wastewater was not theirs to make.

“The Municipality of the County of Colchester, its Council, and its civil servants do not have any authority or power to permit or licence or entertain requests for experiments or discharges or any activity dealing with radioactive materials as possessed and proposed by AIS,” read Hunka from a prepared statement.

“The province of Nova Scotia does not have any authority to licence such a facility or authorize the reprocess of radioactive materials...AIS may have made a bad business decision with serious consequences when AIS accepted, for money, radioactive materials contained in fracking waste process water.”

Local resident Don Wilson had many more questions for council.

“The Engineer's memo [given to council on a September 13th meeting] to Council doesn't say what the concentrations of the radioactive elements are,” read Wilson. “Nor does it say how the tests were conducted. One would have to assume that the test samples were taken from the liquid part of the ponds, but at what level? Was it near the surface where rainwater could have diluted the mix? Was it near the bottom of the pond? Or was it taken from the sludge laying on the bottom?...Were the tests observed by an independent person or by a county employee, from start to finish, to ensure the samples tested were actually the samples taken?...

Wilson further noted that the question of “how to monitor the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, propane, methane...that may be entrapped in the waste and that might be released during the dumping into the Debert ponds” remained unaddressed.

While looks of surprise, shock and disappointment were painted on the faces of numerous council members during Wilson's presentation, no answers to his questions were forthcoming.

AIS's possession of 4.5 million litres of frack waste water originating from Triangle Petroleum's Kennetcook wells may seem troubling enough. But it is its possession of approximately 11 million litres of frack wastewater from Corridor Resources Inc's Penobsquis, New Brunswick, gas wells that may be a harbinger of things to come.

If AIS truly has developed a method to de-radioactivate its frack wastewater, or at the very least can convince Colchester County council that it has, it could potentially lead to a new and lucrative frack  wastewater treatment business for the company. While there is currently a moratorium on the process of “fracking” in Nova Scotia, there is no such moratorium on transporting fracked wastewater.

With the productive and heavily fracked gas fields of New Brunswick only a few hundred kilometres away, Colchester County's decision on AIS's right to treat the frack-wastewater currently in its possession, and use municipal facilities to do so, may either shut the door on this potential market, or kick it wide open.

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Topics: Environment
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