At first, Nielle and Howard Hawkwood, who have ranched in Alberta's foothills for 40 years, couldn't believe the ''in-your-face industrialization'' that accompanied the horizontal drilling and fracking of tight oil wells around Cochrane, Alberta.
It began in 2009 when the so-called Cardium oil boom abruptly dotted the rolling landscape with scores of well pads, oil batteries, and new access roads.
The companies were drilling lateral wells, which turn 90 degrees and travel for kilometres underground, extending under people's barns and homes. (Tight oil costs more to extract and produces lower quantities of oil.)
As industry fracked these deep, far-reaching wells with millions of gallons of water, toxic chemicals, and sand under high pressure and then burned off unwanted raw gas, the Hawkwoods and many of their neighbours began complaining about noxious emissions and earth tremors.
Some officials with the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) initially responded to general complaints in the region by saying fracking was proven and safe and that it couldn't cause earthquakes -- claims now proven false by a variety of scientific studies.
Just this year, for example, scientists reported that tremors in Western Canada caused by the oil and gas industry ''are highly correlated in time and space with hydraulic fracturing.''
Meanwhile, songbirds disappeared from the Lochend area, north of Cochrane where the Hawkwoods live, while the chemistry of local groundwater started to show changes in the amount of sodium, chloride, barium, strontium, and uranium.
At their own ranch, the Hawkwoods observed that their well water levels rose during highly pressurized fracking operations and then returned to normal once the fracking stopped.
Then came reports from nearly a dozen nearby residents about hair loss, respiratory problems, skin rashes, and rare cancers. Many families later moved from the region.
''When my own hair loss became extreme, I Googled hair loss and fracking and realized it was a frequent symptom,'' recalled Nielle.
Neighbours of fracking operations are more likely to report health issues. One Pennsylvania study found that people with water wells who live near fracking sites were twice as likely to report skin and respiratory problems. The study did not establish causation.
After losing an unprecedented number of cattle in 2013, the Hawkwoods tested soil where the cattle had urinated and found high levels of radioactive materials. Not even seeds would germinate in the soil. That discovery convinced the couple to test themselves for radioactive elements and to purchase a Geiger counter.
The special test, analyzed at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario, showed that the ranchers had ''high'' levels of uranium and strontium above the lab's ''reference range'' in their urine, probably due to exposure from soil, water or air.
''I was upset,'' said Nielle, a 67-year-old retired speech pathologist. ''It was really disconcerting.''
The doctors told her not to worry and that, by the way, ''You've got lower kidney function due to aging.'' She added, ''But that didn't seem true to me at all.'' Nielle believes it’s related to the uranium and strontium exposure.
Although an analysis of the lab findings by Alberta Health Services stated ''there is absolutely no way to relate the uranium in soil to any recent fracking,'' the Hawkwoods and a growing body of scientific literature on the concentration of radioactive elements in unconventional shale and oil development contradict those claims.
There is almost universal agreement among geologists that the geochemistry for every shale or tight oil basin is unique and contains many trace metals, as well as what the oil industry calls ''technically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material,'' or TENORM, due to the depth of these formations in the earth. Some formations have more radioactive materials than others.
In addition, it is well known that the extraction process can concentrate TENORM in drilling waste and also bring the radioactive elements to the surface via flowback waters, the highly saline waters that gush from a well prior to hydrocarbon production.
According to U.S. research scientist JP Nicol, strontium and radium are soluble. It is also possible many elements of TENORM can be mobilized from drilling waste, travel in water, and enter water wells.
Nicol, who works at the Economic Bureau of Geology at the University of Texas in Austin, said that levels of strontium and uranium could have been high in local waters before fracking, but nobody noticed because no analyses were done.
But the Alberta Health Services analysis on the uranium findings, dated June 25, 2015, did note that many other people living near fracking sites had experienced ''similar symptoms to Mrs. Hawkwood and her husband... Although they all seem nonspecific, many of them had problems with hair loss, epistaxis (bleeding from the nose), weight changes, malaise, and respiratory symptoms.''
An email from the Alberta Energy Regulator, Alberta Health Services and Alberta Health noted that the energy regulator ''does not have analytical data for the Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) content of flowback waters and gases from each of the hydraulically fractured wells in the Cardium Formation'' but suspected that ''there is unlikely to be substantial'' radioactive materials present.
Nor does it have any information on the contents of flared gas from fracking sites.
It added the regulator's research in this area is ongoing.
In recent years many studies have underscored the dangers of unconventional shale development for oil or gas for people living nearby fracked well sites.
A 2015 Dartmouth College study found that chemical reactions between injected freshwater and hydraulically fractured shale itself could release large amounts of the toxic metal barium and potentially radium, too.
One 2016 study published in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology found elevated levels of barium and strontium in flowback or wastewaters from wells that were recently fracked. This same wastewater malignantly transformed cells and formed tumors in mice.
A study in West Virginia found that an injection well pumping salty wastewater from fracking operations into the ground had leaked and contaminated a local stream with radioactive elements and other chemicals.
Another Texas study found that shale gas activity can contaminate nearby water wells with a variety of heavy metals and toxic chemicals ranging from arsenic to strontium. Moreover, it found these contaminants will fluctuate over time.
A 2015 analysis of the management of wastewater, including radioactive wastes at unconventional drilling operations in four North American jurisdictions (including Alberta), found huge gaps and inconsistencies.
Both industry and government knew little about ''the fate of wastewater, the source of water used, water injection and production, and chemical analysis,'' said the report.
It added that it was also unclear ''what portion of a well's wastewater is reused/recycled, treated, surface discharged, or deep-well injected. This lack of information prohibits any direct analysis of wastewater management practices for the hydraulic fracturing operations based on the available information in databases.''
More than 10,000 horizontal wells have been drilled and fracked in Alberta in the last decade.
Regulator report denies serious problems
The Hawkwoods now suspect their uranium exposure came from radioactive elements that either dissolved in groundwater or came from untested drill cuttings that were trucked from heavily fracked well sites and applied to farmland in the Lochend area as ''fertilizer.''
Last year the Alberta Energy Regulator, which is 100 per cent funded by industry and has no mandate to protect public health, released a report titled ''Recurring Human Health Complaints Technical Information Synthesis: Lochend Area,'' without notifying local residents.
The report, which came with a disclaimer that it would not be suitable ''for use by any other person'' than Lochend residents, denied there were any serious problems with hydraulic fracturing.
The document said that complaints from Lochend area residents ''were general in nature, containing concerns over fracturing in the province.'' It made no mention of TENORM and did not contain any information from previous Alberta studies on the hazards of flaring waste gas.
In Nielle Hawkwood's view, the AER report was ''put together to make it look like there was no basis to our complaints.'' She characterized the document as disrespectful and dishonest.
A government reply to Tyee questions on the document said: ''The report produced by AER is not a health report. It does not assess indicators of human health.''
The report acknowledged ''a need for more information about air emissions from flaring in the initial stages of new development, specifically during fracturing flowback.'' That study has yet to happen due to the cessation of most fracking in the area following the drop in oil prices.
But according to a government response to questions from The Tyee, the ''flowback emissions study underway within the [regulator] will focus on characterizing the chemical composition of gaseous emissions from hydraulically fractured wells in the Cardium formation and will include NORM analysis.''
The Hawkwoods' uranium findings will likely be a topic of conversation at the annual convention of Alberta's New Democratic Party this weekend in Calgary, where Nielle plans to introduce a resolution to ban fracking in a province ''pending independent scientific study to determine the effects of all operations on human and animal health, and on the environment, including thorough investigation of effects on air, land and water.''
Given the province's dependence on oil revenues and fractious politics, she has no idea how her resolution will be received. And there's a chance it won't be heard at all: on Friday, NDP officials pushed the resolution, which is supported by the party's rural caucus, to last position on the list: number 66.
But Nielle argued that the province should act now while oil prices are low and before there is another boom.
Now that most fracking in Nielle's neighborhood has ceased, groundwater flow and chemistry has normalized, the birds have returned, and her hair has grown back, she said.
To date, several countries, six U.S. states, and several provinces including Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland have banned fracking because of health and water contamination concerns.
''So many members of my family and neighbors have suffered from fracking,'' said Nielle. ''Anyone who lives in rural Alberta knows how dangerous it is and what damage it has done to people, livestock, and water. If we don't do something, we will lose our groundwater.''
Nielle's husband, Howard, a large man who loves nothing more than tending to his cattle, said the whole experience has disheartened him: ''I have no faith in government. I'm totally disgruntled.''
The Hawkwoods aren't the only disgruntled ones in the province's iconic foothills north of Cochrane.
Gary Tresidder, a retired dentist, said he nearly died after being overwhelmed from the burning of toxic raw gas full of contaminants from nine wells over a period of 18 months between 2012 and 2014.
''I was so sick, I could barely walk up the stairs or remember my name. It was like living in a blast furnace… We lived in terror for nearly two years, that's for sure.'' His daughter got severely ill and so, too, did two horses, he said.
Tresidder said that he knows at least two dozen people who suffered health problems they attribute to nearby fracking operations. Their symptoms ranged from hair loss to third-degree skin burns.
Tresidder wrote hundreds of letters to politicians, regulators, and public health authorities but to no avail, he said.
He described the AER report as a ''childish brush-over to fool people… there were no medical citations. It was embarrassing to read.''
After sitting for three years on the Cochrane (Lochend) Air Quality Technical Working Group chaired by Alberta Health Services, Tresidder said he resigned last year when the group failed to do anything.
''I was so disappointed. 'Why are you ignoring all of the medical studies on fracking?' I asked them. They said, 'We'll look into them,' but they never did.''
The Alberta Health Service said it provided data to local residents as well as information on how to access services.
According to Heather Kipling, a senior communications advisor with AHS, local complaints were ''consistent with the health effects associated with air pollution contaminants,'' but that studies ''conducted thus far are inconclusive to be able to attribute the illnesses to oil and gas development.''
The AHS added that there might be a ''potential future role for Health Impact Assessments as part of the approval process for significant industrial development to more accurately identify and assess potential health risks.''
Dan Thomas, a retired oil and gas engineer who also lives in the Lochend area, described the fracking boom that overwhelmed the community as ''chaos.''
He asked the regulator to do a risk assessment on high-volume horizontal drilling but said the regulator ''couldn't even acknowledge or understand the problem.''
''The absence of a precautionary principle is atrocious,'' he said. He, too, supports the Hawkwoods' call for a moratorium.
''Let's stop this until we can put an appropriate process in place with a real risk assessment. Fracking is fraught with all kinds of issues and we have to assess the risk properly.''
Prevent Cancer Now, a Canadian civil society organization comprised of scientists and health professionals, recently noted that ''the AER has no jurisdiction for human health, and Alberta is famed for a chill against the medical community linking ill health to petrochemicals.''