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Is There a Regulator in the House?

Through the Fracking Rabbit Hole with Nova Scotia Environment

by Ken Summers

Is There a Regulator in the House?

NOEL, Nova Scotia -- At the moment, Nova Scotians have two aspects of the continuous fracking debate on the table.

Firstly, there's the locally focused issue guaranteed to gain increasing attention: the long overdue reclamation of the two 5 year old fracking waste storage ponds in Kennetcook, northern Hants County. Resolution of this issue has become complicated by the contentious issue of filtering out radioactive materials from the wastes, materials that were found after remediation of the ponds had already begun.

Then there are the same issues played out in the communities around the Jodrey family-owned Atlantic Industrial Services (AIS) waste treatment facility in Debert. AIS is holding, for intended treatment and discharge, some of the fracking wastes transported from Kennetcook, and a greater amount of fluid wastes brought from several fracked wells in New Brunswick.

AIS discharges treated wastes into the Colchester County’s Debert sewage treatment plant, which are then carried down the Chiginois River to the tidal estuaries of Cobequid Bay. Whether or not to allow the discharge into its sewage system has been a hot municipal council item since September 2012. The Nova Scotia government actually plays a far greater role than County Council in how this has unfolded, but so far has succeeded at remaining in the background.

NDP Government's Fracking Review

The other important aspect of the fracking debate in Nova Scotia is the ruling NDP government’s 'Hydraulic Fracturing Review', which has not yet been released. Even without any new fracking in the province, the lingering effects of previous fracking - and misgivings in how the province has dealt with wastes from those attempts - suggest that controversy will keep bubbling out into the open. The upcoming 'Review' has provided Ministers easy lines about addressing genuine concerns in the matter, while clipping off messy follow-up questions.

With few questions asked from mainstream media within the province, the NDP government gets a free ride to kick the issue out of view with an  in-house study that won’t be put under scrutiny until long after the upcoming provincial elections.

Elevated Levels of Radioactivity in Nova Scotia Fracking Wastes

Contamination of water supplies with chemical cocktails is understandably the most prominent controversy around fracking for shale gas, anywhere. But shale fracking also brings to the surface vast quantities of toxic materials occurring naturally in the resource-holding rock. Considering how widely distributed uranium is in the geology of Nova Scotia, it should not have been a surprise that elevated radioactivity levels in fracking wastes were an issue with the province’s first two exploratory shale gas wells fracked in early 2008. Yet the NDP government appears to have initially been caught completely off-guard by this.

Controversy around fracking over the last year has focused on what to do about the radioactivity in those wastes. Filtering out even the lowest concentrations of radioactivity from fluids necessarily entails concentrating the hazard in another form, so it is a task normally performed by highly specialized and regulated facilities. Nova Scotia Environment gave pilot project approval to Atlantic Industrial Services for an experimental process to filter out the radioactive material. The plan as presented to Colchester County Council is that when and if this filtering of radioactivity is successful, the fracking wastes will then be treated in the ‘normal process’ of AIS for fracking wastes.

Is There a Regulator in the House?

Everyone concerned assumes that Atlantic Industrial Services is an approved processor of fracking wastes. In an earlier article this author suggests that in accepting fracking wastes for processing AIS appears to be operating outside the terms of its approvals from the regulator, and Nova Scotia Environment has allowed and even encouraged the company to proceed regardless. To this allegation, provincial Environment staff replied that “the assertions in your article are without merit.”

Consider the facts:

FACT:  All of the Environment department’s Industrial Approvals for AIS Debert explicitly prohibit the company from processing what are classified as waste dangerous goods. Nova Scotia Environment spokesperson Lori Errington has said repeatedly that the department has determined that the fracking wastes from Kennetcook are not waste dangerous goods, and therefore AIS is in compliance.

FACT: The NSE supervising engineer who wrote the 2008 to 2010 approvals for the Kennetcook fracking storage ponds always referred to the wastewater as waste dangerous goods, as does the consulting engineer for the driller, Triangle Petroleum. When the discrepancy was pointed out to spokesperson Errington, she queried the engineer, who backpedaled. "That is not what he meant to say,” noted Errington.

FACT: When questioned about another missing and unaccounted for 4 plus million litres of frack wastes, whose whereabouts remain publicly unknown, Environment has repeatedly maintained that the department did not need to monitor where the wastes went or how they were disposed of because NSE had previously determined the wastes were not of concern. But no sampling was done for the most toxic chemicals used, and the department had simply accepted Triangle Petroleum’s statement that the amounts used were “minimal”. [page 9]

FACT: At a well later fracked at Noel Lake, there were no storage ponds, and all the waste fluids were transported out and disposed of, somewhere. This is most likely part of the 4 million plus litres disposed of in places unknown by contractors unknown. And there is no evidence of any testing or monitoring whatsoever, not even the limited sampling done with the Kennetcook waste ponds.

QUESTION: If our Environment Department is enabling AIS to go around a core regulatory pillar, how can Nova Scotians entrust it with the decision on whether and under what conditions AIS should be allowed to graduate to the much more complex - and hazardous - processing for radioactivity?

FACT: The Environment department repeatedly makes the claim that the AIS Debert facility has always been approved for treating fracking wastes. At the same time, they do not contest that the approvals prohibit AIS from processing wastewater classified as waste dangerous goods.

FACT: AIS began working in 2007 on an Environmental Assessment submitted in 2008 for a substantial expansion and upgrade of their facility that would allow them to get approval for processing waste dangerous goods. The largest amount of material specific content in the proposal is devoted to drilling and fracking wastes. [NOTE below]

FACT: That Debert facility expansion/upgrade was approved by Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau September 2009. But AIS instead proposed to the Town of Windsor the discharge of millions of litres of fracking wastes into the town’s sewage treatment plant. AIS agreed to pay $100,000 for the “service,” and NSE granted an approval despite dumping untreated fracking wastes into municipal sewage treatment plants being universally considered a worst practice, even by oil companies. This option was obviously cheaper than the proposed and approved expansion of their own facility, but still no small expenditure of funds by AIS.

QUESTION: How does one square all of that staff time and expenditure of funds by AIS with the defense from Environment that AIS has “always been approved for processing wastes from hydraulic fracturing?” There has been no reply from department spokesperson Errington when the question was put to her.

FACT: Legislation in all Canadian jurisdictions controlling and regulating waste dangerous goods puts the responsibility and accountability for classification of wastewaters on companies like AIS that are receiving and handling. Oil and gas drilling wastes in general, and wastes from shale gas fracking in particular, are mostly classified and handled as waste dangerous goods. The processes and protocols used by regulators and industry federally - and in the producing western provinces - assume that not classifying fluid drilling and fracking wastes as waste dangerous goods are the exceptional cases.

FACT: Not so in Nova Scotia. Somehow, fracking wastes are never waste dangerous goods here. We have the three fracked wells in Kennetcook and Noel, where we are told the determination that none of the wastes there are waste dangerous goods was made by Environment- notwithstanding the several documented references by the supervising NSE engineer that the Kennetcook wastes are waste dangerous goods. Then we have AIS transporting drilling and fracking wastes from a number of wells in New Brunswick- at least several fracked that the author has documented. Each of those wells, especially the fracked ones, has a different chemical mixture designed for it. And somehow, in every case AIS has supposedly determined the waste fluids are not a waste dangerous good.

QUESTION: Given this track record of Nova Scotia Environment’s pliable standards for monitoring AIS, what rational basis is there for Nova Scotians to entrust the department with making the decisions of what are adequate safeguards for Atlantic Industrial Services experimenting with treating for radioactivity? This question is all the more pressing for the guinea pig residents like the author who live near the fracking waste ponds of Kennetcook and Debert.

FACT: The New Brunswick PC government has always been openly and overtly in favour of fracking shale gas. As part of it’s improvement of the optics, it asked for recommendations from the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. Her findings are just a cursory opinion compared to the thorough studies of health effects that New York and Quebec have both extended their own fracking reviews to include.

QUESTION: The NDP has said nothing about studying the human health effects of fracking. They are potentially planning on including something in the government's Fracking Review. But will it be the bare minimum for improving optics like New Brunswick, or will it be a robust study following the leads of Quebec and New York? There is a burgeoning amount of research on the effects that increasing levels of accumulating “low level radiation” sources has on human health. The Health Canada guidelines for acceptable exposure used by the provincial Environment department are now decades out of date. Considering the wide distribution of subsurface uranium at the same depths as shale beds, and that the first two fracked test wells in the province turned up wastes with elevated levels of radioactive materials, might the NDP government mark this as a special need for a health effects study in the Review? Or will the Ministers continue to stand on waiting to see what Quebec and New York come up with?

FACT: Whenever concerns about fracking become more vocal, NDP ministers come out with the talking points about the Review- especially that the Review is in place to look at whether shale gas fracking should be done at all in Nova Scotia. But when civil servants tasked with the work of the Review talk about the content of what they are doing, it is all about how to do fracking safely, not if.

FACT: A very key part of a Review of Hydraulic Fracturing is the regulatory and monitoring capabilities, and the performance history to date of the key government departments. Yet we have a Review composed entirely of civil servants reviewing their own departments.

The simple and easy way for our NDP government to re-assure concerned Nova Scotians would be to make concrete commitments now about substantially increasing the scope of the Fracking Review, and of making sure it is not only an in-house review.

What better time for the NDP to make such a commitment? We are in the run-up to an election that opinion polls suggest the NDP does not have in the bag. A firm and expanded commitment to a much stronger Fracking Review would unquestionably be a popular move with voters.

But there has already been considerable pressure on the government to make that move. And unfavourable news around fracking keeps cropping up even without active or permitted shale gas fracking in the province. By punting the completion of the Review off until after the election, the Nova Scotia NDP sets the table to have its cake and eat it too: keep fracking from being an issue in the election, and keep options open for future shale gas development by making sure the Review remains a quiet, in-house, affair.

It remains to be seen if keeping the lid on works as a political strategy.



[NOTE] Environmental Assessment Registration Document (Class 1 Undertaking) Expansion of Waste Management Services Atlantic Industrial Services, Debert Facility.  See especially pages 14 and 21, Table C [pg 28], and Appendix G  Modelling for “New Frac Fluid Waste” [pg 99]

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Topics: Environment
Tags: fracking
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