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Canadian authorities: Fracking operation contaminated groundwater

Amy Mall

Posted December 20, 2012 in Health and the Environment

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Today the Canadian Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) released a report on its investigation into a September, 2011 hydraulic fracturing incident that led to groundwater contamination. The ERCB is an independent quasi-judicial agency that regulates all energy development in the province of Alberta.

The 2011 incident involved fracking of a natural gas well, and the ERCB report outlines in detail all of the errors made by the company conducting the fracking operation. The ERCB concluded that the fracking company "improperly perforated and hydraulically fractured at a shallow depth." A year after the incident, the ERCB found that the groundwater continued to be impacted by fracturing fluids.

According to the report, groundwater monitoring in September, 2012 found the following: "The concentrations of chloride has decreased from the February 2012 sample, but remains elevated. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX) concentrations remained unchanged between the February and September 2012 sampling events. The petroleum hydrocarbon (PHC) fractions F2 through F4 concentrations overall decreased (with the PHC fraction F1 showing an anomalous increase)."

The ERCB concluded: "Collectively, Crew [the well owner] and the onsite service company’s personnel did not adequately manage the risks associated with the coiled tubing perforating and propane hydraulic fracturing operations. There were multiple opportunities to recognize that a problem existed, which could have prevented or at least minimized the impact of the hydraulic fracturing operation above the base of groundwater protection."

I think this is ultimately every community's concern about fracking--that oil and gas companies cannot adequately manage the risks.

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Comments

Elizabeth Fontaine GriecoDec 21 2012 09:12 AM


As an environmental activist, I have researched toxicity involved in a 30 yr old toxic land fill, designated a Super Fund now over twenty years, on the E.P.A. Superfund website called the Butzlandfill, Jackson/Pocono Township.Very little has changed in their aquifers which have thirty or forty monitoring wells tested yearly to see if this contamination has subsided! It hasn't
yet, and will probably take another 100 years to clear of contamination, if it ever does! TCE and vinyl choride, benzene and other chemicals have invaded this land, which has knocked o!ut hundreds of ground wells and that each site drilled with hydraulic fracturing, becomes a "Super Fund site" This dangerous activity could become catastrophic for our communities and wipe out even more good drinking water! Also, methane gas is 18 times more contaminating then carbon emissions! Why are industries persuing an even more polluting activity that could potentially wipe out humanity and wilflife?

Michael BerndtsonDec 21 2012 10:53 AM

If I may offer my two cents on Elizabeth's question - I can think of one possible answer regarding the site she mentions: Superfund de-funding. Since the mid 1990s - CERCLA or Superfund funding has been squeezed to the point I believe no taxes have been collected from industry since around 2002.

Great information Amy.

A bit off topic but germane to the discussion of stuff going all over the place underground - here's an article on Underground Coal Gasification (UCG). In a few words, it's as if shale gas fracking and a Manufactured Coal Gas plant had a child - and that child was troubled.

"Coal’s backup plan: Ignite it underground" 12/21/2012 by Kari Lydersen
http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2012/12/21/coals-backup-plan-ignite-it-underground/

Environmental EngineerDec 21 2012 12:21 PM

In my opinion, the gulf between environmental activists and business interests is made much wider by their differing portrayals of incidents of technological or managerial failure. And, since politicians and policymakers are captives of public opinion, there is a fierce battle to sway public opinion by presenting facts only selectively, and preying on the human emotion of fear. The facts as presented in your post demonstrate the former.

To be specific concerning your writing, the report you cite also states, "Based on groundwater monitoring-well data to date, there is insignificant risk to drinking water in the area." The report also says that the impacted groundwater is not a potential source of drinking water. The company is also required to prepare a plan to prevent recurrences of the incident and submit it to regulators. There is evidence that the organic contaminants are being reduced by naturally occurring bacteria in the soil.

I am not saying that the event should be ignored, just that you are exaggerating its importance.

On a dusty bookshelf at home, I have the book, "To Engineer is Human - The Role of Failure in Successful Design" by Henry Petroski. Since the book was published in 1982, the examples employed are somewhat dated. Also, in 1982 I was already licensed as a Professional Engineer; perhaps I am dated too! But the book is a good read, and I believe the theme of the book can easily be extended beyond "just" engineering to technology in general. That theme is that we learn from our mistakes. Publication of the ERCB report is a way to distribute what was learned to others who need to know.

How you define "manage"? Your final conclusion, that oil and gas companies cannot adequately manage the risks is not supported by your presentation here, nor in others. I don't mean to parse the word too painfully, but managing risk does not mean eliminating risk. Eliminating risk means never getting out of bed in the morning. Managing risk means doing the best we can to assure that the benefits outweigh the risks associated with an action, and that those who benefit bear the costs of those risks. Generally, one of the benefits of assured, expanded, natural gas production is the reduced need for coal production and consumption. In my opinion, that's a very good thing for the environment. Many potential drilling sites for natural gas are located in relatively benign (not fully benign) environments, as opposed to deep-water, ice-bound or politically unstable regions. From a safety, risk management, and net benefit standpoint, this too is a good thing.

Alberta Water SeekerDec 21 2012 04:55 PM

Environmental Engineer,

If there is "insignificant risk to drinking water in the area," then why bother to continue to monitor it?

"The report also says that the impacted groundwater is not a potential source of drinking water." Maybe not today, but what about in the future? Future generations may need this water. How do they clean it up? Or perhaps they will just follow that plume as the EPA is doing in Poplar, Montana and then try to figure out how to replace the drinking water when the time comes.

"Managing risk means doing the best we can to assure that the benefits outweigh the risks associated with an action, and that those who benefit bear the costs of those risks."

We both know that those who benefit DO NOT bear the costs of those risks. If that were the case, when the companies 'unintentionally' screw up an aquifer or blow-up someone's home with their stray gas, they would prepare for that by informing people, "there is a good chance we are going to screw up and destroy your water or blow-up your home." Then when it happens, no one would be surprised, the companies would move quickly to "fix" the aquifer, rebuild the blown-up home for the homeowner (provided the homeowner wasn't blown up with the home) and everyone could just carry-on, stamp down that fear of having our water destroyed or our homes blown up and resume the party.

Unfortunately, as we can now see from the growing number of incidents playing out in the US and Canada, the companies do not acknowledge the risks you speak of, and so it would seem, are hardly interested in managing them. It would appear however, that they are very interested in managing the risk bearers as is evidenced by the numerous settlements and gag orders.

I think when companies 'unintentionally" destroy our homes, water and health, people have the right to be afraid, they just lost everything and the companies will continue on to the next community.

But, when the companies intentionally do their damage, I think people should be downright terrified.

http://www.ernstversusencana.ca/gelledpropane-gel-gasfrac-crew-caltrax-hydraulic-fracturing-fluid-contaminated-groundwater-near-grande-prairie-ercb

Environmental EngineerDec 22 2012 07:00 AM

AWS: If there is "insignificant risk to drinking water in the area," then why bother to continue to monitor it?
EE: Because the declining trend in chemical concentrations can't be reliably established by only two sampling events. There is always a potential for an analytical result to be wrong, so trends are established best by longer-term monitoring.
AWS: "The report also says that the impacted groundwater is not a potential source of drinking water." Maybe not today, but what about in the future?
EE: Classification as not a potential source of drinking water means there is not a potential for future use. In this case, the affected groundwater is in an aquifer that has a very low yield. That means that if you drill a well, you can't get enough water to justify the effort. Of course, you could frac the formation to improve the yield, but that's what (unintentionally) caused this problem in the first place...
AWS: How do they clean it up?
EE: If the trends in contaminant levels and geochemistry continue, nature will do a find job of removing the organic constituents. It will take some time, but it will happen. Continued monitoring will help to establish that.
AWS: We both know that those who benefit DO NOT bear the costs of those risks.
EE: And that's why reasonable regulation is needed, and people considering leasing their land should consult with an attorney before doing so.
AWS: there is a good chance we are going to screw up and destroy your water ...
EE: Baseline monitoring will help establish water quality before drilling and fracking. Monitoring during and after oil/gas development operations, along with records of chemicals used at the site, will then provide clear evidence of cause and effect of contamination, should it occur. Given that kind of case, a damaged party should have little problem retaining a lawyer and gaining a rapid settlement from the driller.
AWS: ...or blow-up your home
EE: For this and your remaining comment, see my original comment. The part about preying on fear.

Victoria SwitzerDec 22 2012 09:27 AM

I really do not believe gas companies really care all that much about managing the environmental risks..their main concern? Get the people on board, promise them a piece of the pie and lie lie lie. So I guess they are managing the risk...

Jocelyn mDec 22 2012 11:59 AM

Guys, please read the whole story! The bottom line is this well was accidentally perforated at 137 m instead of 1437 m
It was a critial, and easily recognisable error, that the operator failed to recognize. When the well was the fractured, of course its going to follow the path of least resistance!
The bottom line is the contamination would have occured with or without the frac job in this case, as even if they had oerforated at 1437 m the produced oil would have escaped through the perforations at 137 m. To say that fracturing caused the contaimination is bad journalism.

Mary SweeneyDec 22 2012 02:05 PM

Environmental engineer: Baseline monitoring is a good idea, but it is no guarantee of safety or even that the injured parties will eventually get some sort of restitution. The gas industry has a habit of denying responsibility, and that is what their lawyers will do in court. Besides, if someone's health is damaged, there is really no way to make up for that after the fact.

To Jocelyn m--yes, technically the problem was that the perforation was in the wrong place. But certainly fracking was involved, because they were perforating the well in preparation for fracking and then they fracked even though the perforation was in the wrong place. Besides, should such an accident occur in an area where people are drinking the groundwater, I really don't think they are going to care which specific step of the drilling/fracking operation caused the damage--the problem will be the damage itself. Fracking technology is driving drilling in areas that no one previously thought would be drilled--some of these areas are heavily populated and heavily dependent on groundwater.

Alberta Water SeekerDec 22 2012 06:55 PM

Environmental Engineer,

"And that's why reasonable regulation is needed, and people considering leasing their land should consult with an attorney before doing so."

Reasonable regulation? I can't think of more reasonable regulation than our "best in the world, world-class" regulations we are blessed with here in Canada.

Unfortunately, when companies don't follow them, there's no "best in the world, world-class" enforcement or penalties to follow that up, so it's a bit of a joke really.

The Alberta regulator, the ERCB, has been touring the world touting our "best in the world, world-class" regs. If we get 'best in the world' what are you guys going to get?

You may want to take it up a notch and push for "very best in the world" for your communities. Or get a bit radical and demand the "very, very best in the world." And because lawyers can't fix aquifers, I would demand best in the world aquifer fixers too, and don't take no for an answer.

Jocelyn m,

Why do they need to frack? By your logic, fracking isn't even necessary and a perf is all that's required to get the well flowing.

Unfortunately, they did frack, with Gasfrac's new highly touted "waterless" magical frack technology that ended up in the aquifer, all BTEX'y and such.

I suppose they have to gel the propane with something, but it would be nice if they would come and retrieve it from our aquifer.

Michael BerndtsonDec 23 2012 11:07 AM

Jocelyn m,
From your comment above you say:
"Guys, please read the whole story! The bottom line is this well was accidentally perforated at 137 m instead of 1437 m"

1100 meters is a pretty big shank (golf term). That's over 3,000 feet to those of us metric systematically challenged. We can land a spacecraft on Mars under tighter tolerances.

Then you end with:
"To say that fracturing caused the contaimination is bad journalism."

This statement is getting really close to the NRA and gun manufacturers public relations statement that "guns don't cause gun violence" or something to that affect.

Comments are closed for this post.

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