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Tell Us What's Being Done to Our Groundwater, Demand Albertans

Push for transparency after province closed once-public records on aquifer quality.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 17 Oct 2011 |

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk writes about energy and the environment for The Tyee and others.

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Jessica Ernst is suing EnCana and Alberta government for groundwater contamination allegedly caused by hydraulic fracturing. Photo by Will Andruschack.

A retired chemical engineer is trying to get the Alberta government to divulge key water quality data on the province's critical groundwater resources -- a move that could shed more light on the impact of shale gas operations on Canadian aquifers.

Don Davidson, a former oil patch worker, says he got interested in the issue when groundwater experts with the Alberta Geological Survey and Geological Survey of Canada told him they couldn't get access to water chemistry reports on rural water wells.

"It was restricted by Alberta Health and Wellness," says Davidson, who is 65 and lives in Edmonton. Until recently, this information was publically available to all citizens. Without access to long-term data on water quality and contents, scientists can't determine any groundwater trends, explains Davidson: "I think that's wrong."

Adds the chemical engineer: "Albertans own this water. I can't think of any case where I own something and don't have the right to information about it. If I own a stock, I have the right to get information on the performance of that stock."

'Buried treasure'

Groundwater has been described as a "buried treasure" for rural Canadians. Nearly a quarter of all Albertans and a third of all British Columbians depend on aquifers as their source of drinking water.

After Alberta Health and Wellness refused to release water chemistry data from the province's more than 220,000 water wells in 2010, Davidson asked the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta to pursue the subject.

Last September, the privacy commissioner declared it would hold a hearing in October, but gave rural citizens dependent on groundwater just one month's public notice during harvest season. The privacy commissioner hasn't posted submissions supporting greater groundwater transparency on its website.

Yet other citizens strongly support the push for more transparency. "Public documents should not be secret documents," say Shawn and Ronalie Campbell in their submission. The ranching couple from Ponoka, Alberta have lost water wells due to contamination from nearby fracking and drilling operations.

"I think this hearing is really important," adds Jessica Ernst, who is suing EnCana and the Alberta government for negligence and unlawful activities due to groundwater contamination allegedly caused by hydraulic fracturing. That's the highly controversial practice of blasting natural gas-bearing formations with highly pressurized volumes of water, sand and chemicals.

(According to ProPublica, an independent news source, the brute force technology has destroyed or poisoned as many as 1,000 water wells across the continent.)

Migrating poison

"Contaminated water does not stay put. It moves and will affect others. The data on water chemistry for the province's water wells needs to be made public," adds Ernst, a 54-year-old oil patch scientist. Methane contamination destroyed her water well. This month, she received a "Woman of Courage Award" from a United Nations group for her efforts to hold companies accountable for environmental harm done by hydraulic fracking.

Due to groundwater concerns, Enviroment Canada has commissioned a study on "the state of scientific knowledge on potential environmental impacts from the development of Canada's shale gas resources."

Alberta is one of the most heavily drilled landscapes on the continent, with more than 350,000 oil and gas wells. A recent Duke University study found that areas with a high concentration of drilling activity tend to have much higher levels of methane (including flammable water) and other hydrocarbons (ethane, propane and butane) in the groundwater.

Oil and gas installations aren't the only potential source of groundwater contamination in the province. Salt from highways and nitrates from intensive livestock factories can also pollute groundwater.

Oral inquiry this week

Alberta's Privacy Commissioner Frank Work will conduct a public oral inquiry on Davidson's request for making water chemistry data on the province's water wells public from Oct. 18 to Oct. 20 in Edmonton, Alberta.

Alberta Health and Wellness has a reputation for secrecy. Although the majority of rural water treatment plants in northern Alberta received a failing grade in 2003 and 2004, authorities refused to make individual assessments on the facilities available to the public.

Transparency has been an issue for the privacy commissioner too. When Jessica Ernst submitted a freedom of information request on baseline water well data in 2008, the most important records were censored or withheld.

She requested and was granted an inquiry, but her submission was shared with four "secret" parties in the oil and gas industry: EnCana, PetroBakken, Schlumberger and the Energy Resources and Conservation Board. Her inquiry remains ongoing.

"They sent my private information and submission to four private parties illegally, and violated their own written inquiry procedures," adds Ernst.

Citizens interested in attending the hearing can contact Karen Hesson, Registrar of Inquiries: 780-422-6860 or toll free in Alberta at 1-888-878-4044.

'What are we doing to our aquifers?'

Davidson says he initiated the request on his own due to concerns about groundwater in general.

"Someone needs to be looking at groundwater quality on a macro scale and ask what are we doing to our aquifers and is the water chemistry changing over time. It's important this thing gets well aired."

In 2007, the prestigious Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy found that "the existing network of groundwater monitoring is insufficient to provide reliable information on water quality and water levels and their variability" in Alberta.

[Find more Tyee stories in: Environment.]  [Tyee]

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