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Alberta Landowners Dispute Energy Regulator over Polluted Well

Couple says 'glaring' data on industry-caused water contamination is ignored.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 18 Oct 2013 |

Andrew Nikiforuk, an award-winning journalist and author, is also an active landowner in the province of Alberta. Find his previous Tyee stories here.

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Rancher Ronalie Campbell, left, with husband Shawn: 'There are lots of sick people in this area due to water contamination.' Photo: Hans Asfeldt.

Last June, Shawn and Ronalie Campbell got a three-paragraph letter from Alberta's energy regulator.

The letter told them their groundwater well was still contaminated with hydrocarbons.

The contamination did not differ in composition from previous tests last year: high levels of hydrogen sulfide (H2S, a neurotoxin) and higher levels of methane and ethane.

These test results, declared the regulator, "confirm our previous conclusion that there is no evidence of a link between energy development activities and the hydrocarbon and H2S gases present in your water well."

Case closed.

"You can't print what I think about this letter," says 62-year-old Ronalie Campbell, a long-time rancher near Ponoka, Alberta.

"After eight years of fiddling around there were no phone calls. There was no duty of care. There was no respect. The message they are sending to landowners is that, 'We don't care and go away.'"

The Campbells, who support careful oil and gas activity, say they don't understand why the regulator has ignored "glaring, in-your-face data" on industry-caused water contamination.

"I think they are concerned about liability," added Ronalie Campbell in an interview. "They are not prepared to face what this would mean in multiple lawsuits once the contamination is revealed. There are lots of sick people in this area due to water contamination."

Investigation abruptly closed

Like many rural Albertans, the Campbell ranch is surrounded by industry. More than 50 oil and gas wells lie within a two-mile radius of the ranch, and nearly 30 wells dot their land. But the regulator confined its eight-year investigation into possible leaks from only nine of 50 potentially leaking wells.

The abrupt closure of the investigation highlights growing tensions between landowners and the oil and gas regulator in rural Alberta, where more than 450,000 water wells provide sustenance for livestock and rural communities.

Protecting that groundwater in the face of intense hydraulic fracturing of conventional and difficult oil and gas wells has become an increasingly heated issue.

There are scores of complaints, and the government now faces a landmark $33-million lawsuit against Alberta Environment, the regulator, and Encana Corporation over groundwater contamination in Rosebud, Alberta.

Recent U.S. studies have also shown a direct connection between the intensity of hydraulic fracturing activity and the level of methane, arsenic and chlorides contaminating local groundwater.

The Alberta regulator, which is now headed by Gerard Protti, a former industry lobbyist, issued the letter at the same time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dropped its plans to further investigate a case of documented groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming due to hydraulic fracturing following intense industry pressure.

Gassy fingerprints

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) took three months to respond to a Tyee inquiry on the matter dated July 4.

The regulator's Oct. 10 reply said the AER couldn't comment on the file in question. It also neglected to answer questions on how many landowners received similar letters ending water contamination investigations.

"The AER does work closely with ESRD (Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development) and occasionally, the outcome of an ESRD investigation will indicate that nearby energy activity could cause the water-well problem," the reply said.

The letter to the Campbells seems to revive the standard position of industry lobbyists that water wells can never be impacted by energy wells.

Several studies and scientific evidence not only contradict such beliefs, but tell a vastly different story at the Campbells' ranch.

A 2007 Alberta Research Council (now Alberta Innovates) report conceded that the methane in the Campbells' water came not from biological sources but from gases seeping from a deep industry well.

A study by University of Alberta gas migration expert Karlis Muehlenbachs identified a probable source of contamination. Using isotopic measurements, or a "fingerprint of gases," Muehlenbachs found that methane and pentane contamination of the Campbell water well most likely matched stray gases from a well at least 1,757 metres in depth.

"Oil wells on the Campbell property have caused gas from 1,757 metres to enter their aquifer," said Muehlenbachs, a world expert on the fingerprinting of stray oilfield gases.

A separate 2011 study by J.D. Mollard and Associates concluded that bedrock fractures or natural faults might have created "enhanced permeability pathways" for hydrocarbons to move into local aquifers.

If the regulator permitted hydraulic fracturing in an area already made insecure by natural fractures, "then they are in fact negligent" and would be liable for water contamination, added Muehlenbachs.

"The Alberta Energy Regulator has to do or sponsor technical studies determining the role of well bore integrity, natural fractures on aquifers and domestic water wells," said Muehlenbachs.

"By systematically ignoring scientific evidence for aquifer contamination, they paint themselves into an untenable corner that will blacken Alberta's environmental record in the international press as damaging the regulator's credibility."

Near-decade long well woes

The Campbells first encountered problems with their water well in 2005 after extensive oil and gas drilling occurred near their home.

Explosive levels of methane appeared in their drinking water along with dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide or sour gas. (The nearest licensed sour gas well is more than 10 kilometres away, but many formations produce sour gas in the region.)

When the Campbells went public with their concerns about the impact of drilling on groundwater quality in 2008, they say they got a phone call from an industry worker involved in the vertical hydraulic fracturing of wells in the area during the 1980s.

"He was scared to death," said Ronalie Campbell. In several late midnight calls the worker told the couple that industry "fractured your area and that this is what caused the water contamination."

At the time, Ronalie Campbell said that she "didn't really understand what hydraulic fracturing was."

Recent studies by Duke University and the University of Texas have found increased levels of stray gases, arsenic and heavy metals in groundwater near drilling sites undergoing hydraulic fracturing.

Scientists now suspect that the blasting of sand, water and chemicals at high pressure into deep formations can create man-made pathways or connect to natural fractures as well as damage well casings or seals, resulting in methane contamination of groundwater.

Dropped 'like a lead balloon'

Since the 1950s, more than 200,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured in western Canada. In the last decade, both B.C. and Alberta have fracked nearly 20,000 horizontal wells with even higher volumes of water and chemicals in what's known as "multi-stage fracks."

At least three dozen frack jobs in Alberta and B.C. have migrated and "communicated" with other industry wells, spewing fluid and hydrocarbons onto fields and forests.

Regulatory data shows that well casings for horizontal wells that have been hydraulically fractured tend to leak or break at much higher rates than vertical wells due to the wear and tear caused by the highly pressured nature of fracking.

Data collected by Alberta's regulator shows that 70 per cent of these so-called "deviated wells" leak, to international authorities admitted that deep well leakage to surface and groundwater not only occurs but will get worse as both population density and drilling activity intensify in Alberta. As many as 50,000 wells could be drilled in central Alberta over the next decade to produce unconventional oil deposits.

Leaking gas can also travel a long way. A 2004 study on a gas explosion in Hutchinson, Kansas that killed two people found that stray gases migrated almost seven miles underground.

After wrangling with industry and the government, the Campbells eventually abandoned their well and spent $10,000 of their own money reworking an older, lower-producing water well for household use. They also made adaptations to the polluted well so the regulator could continue testing it.

"We accommodated their testing and then they dropped us like a lead balloon with no consideration," said Ronalie Campbell.

"I have no respect for the regulator anymore," added the rancher. "Sadly, most Albertans will not realize the severity of the groundwater situation until they lose their own water."

In its letter to The Tyee, the regulator inferred that gas in groundwater "is a common natural occurrence."

Yet the best industry data suggests that as of 2006, only 0.1812 per cent -- or fewer than 1,000 wells out of the province's 500,000 groundwater wells (industry operates nearly 50,000) -- show evidence of methane contamination.

Isotopic fingerprinting can precisely identify whether the gas comes from industry activity or Mother Nature. But the forensic science tool is not widely employed by oil and gas regulators.  [Tyee]

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