Town’s treatment of potentially radioactive fracking wastewater called into question
© Ashley Thompson
This sign is posted near one of the Triangle Petroleum Corporation’s former fracking sites in Kennetcook. The roadway to the site is blocked by a lock gate.
An American company’s search for natural gas in Nova Scotia has led to one fracking issue after another in Hants County.
While the Denver-based Triangle Petroleum Corporation’s exploration activity in the rural East Hants communities of Noel and Kennetcook typically generates the most hype regarding the undetermined environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing in Hants County, documents obtained through access to information legislation recently thrust the Town of Windsor into the frackingspotlight as well.
The acquired documents, made public by the citizen-run Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition (NOFRAC),showed that the Town of Windsor received approval from the provincial Department of Environment to use its municipal sewage treatment plant to dispose of brine water transported from the Atlantic Industrial Services’ facility in Debert.
The approval was grantedbefore the brine water — waste produced when millions of litres of frack fluid comprised of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals was injected in the ground to release shale gas and hydrocarbons from rock formations — was tested for naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs).
The brine water generated by Triangle Petroleum’s exploration efforts in East Hants between 2007 and 2009was initially sent to the facility in Debert as part of an ongoing effort to drain storage ponds in Kennetcook holding millions of litres of wastewater produced by the use of hydraulic fracturing in three of the five wells the company drilled within its “Windsor Block.”
Town officials claim no knowledge of NORMs
Atlantic Industrial Services (AIS) turned to the Town of Windsor for help treating the brine water in 2009. Windsor’s town council discussed a Brine Solution Treatment Draft Agreement in camera at a Sept. 22, 2009 council meeting.
Following the closed session, council voted unanimously in favour of accepting a motion moved by Coun. John Bregante, and seconded by Deputy Mayor Laurie Murley. The motion stipulated that council would agree to work with Atlantic Industrial Services Limited if the proposed brine treatment agreement was revised to include recommendations from representatives of CBCL Limited and AIS, Nova Scotia Environment confirmed that all of the department’s concerns were addressed, and a written procedure for brine testing was drafted and agreed upon.
In a phone interview Oct. 18, Mayor Paul Beazley said it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“There was no reason not to,” he said, during the conversation that was placed on speakerphone to include Town of Windsor CAO Louis Coutinho.
Coutinho and Beazley said council was not aware of any concerns regarding radioactive elements in the brine water when the decision was made to treat the waste at the town’s sewage treatment plant.
“Certainly anything that was done was done under the direction of the Nova Scotia Department of Environment… it was the department that said this… brine water should be treated as normal wastewater and there was no information to suggest it was anything different than normal wastewater,” Beazley said.
The town was paid about $100,000 for treating more than seven million litres of brine water between March 2010 and August 2011, said Don Beatty, Windsor’s Director of Public Works, in an email to the Hants Journal.
“The town received a report from a consulting firm stating that our plant was capable of treating the brine water in question. As we were not aware that the wastewater contained radioactive components, this aspect of treatment was never considered,” Beatty noted.
Water treated at Windsor’s wastewater facility is flushed into the Minas Basin, near the mouth of the St. Croix River, Beatty said.
The town stopped accepting the wastewater in August 2011 when, Coutinho said, town officials were advised to stop accepting shipments of brine water.
“All we received was a call from one of their inspectors (to) our water treatment plant saying that one of the things that they haven’t been testing for were NORMs,” the CAO explained, later adding: “The moment we heard it we stopped taking any [brine] water into our sewage treatment plant.”
As for the water that’s already made its way to the Minas Basin, it seems the contents of that frack waste will remain a mystery.
“It’s a year and a half later so we can’t test the water that’s already gone through, but our treatment facility… does get tested on a regular basis,” Beazley said.
Both the town’s mayor and CAO say Windsor has not received any reports confirming that the brine water treated in Windsor was contaminated.
“From all the information that we have had going back to before we even accepted the water, all the way through and up until this minute, we have not been advised of any safety concerns related to the water that went through our system,” Beazley said.
An email conversation dating back to December 2011 between Triangle Petroleum’s former CEO, Dr. Peter Hill, and a compliance and inspection co-ordinator with Nova Scotia Environment that is posted in the public documents section of NOFRAC’s website shows that brine water samples taken from the holding ponds in Kennetcook were found to be in excess of the allowable NORM limits defined in Health Canada’s guidelines.
“If I were a citizen in the Windsor area I would really be asking hard questions to the government as to what did they know about this waste before they allowed it to be dumped in their community." Jennifer West
In a brief phone interview Oct. 19, Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau said the public need not be concerned about the water discharged in the Minas Basin.
“These levels of NORMs are very low-risk to the public,” he said.
“I want to ensure the public that the federal government has identified these are at low-risk levels.”
The approval for the Town of Windsor to treat brine water was based on a consultant’s report and, Belliveau said, he believes an inspector with AIS was the first to raise concerns about the level of NORMs in the frack waste.
A complicated clean-up in Kennetcook
Belliveau said the government is committed to getting the holding ponds in Kennetcook cleaned up “as quickly as possible.”
Lori Errington, a communications staffer with Nova Scotia Environment, said the presence of NORMs in the wastewater stored in Kennetcook complicates the clean-up process.
“The discovery of naturally occurring radioactive materials in the wastewater last November (2011) means that the water will have to be treated differently than originally planned. This may take more time, but we will ensure that Triangle properly treats the water and cleans up the area.”
Triangle Petroleum received approval to use drilling and fracking to search for natural gas in East Hants from the Department of Energy but, Errington said, an industrial approval was sought from Nova Scotia Environment when the production water was deemed “salty.”
Errington said Nova Scotia Environment inspectors visit the site of the holding ponds frequently, and the government will not be issuing any more approvals for fracking until a review of the extraction procedure is completed in 2014.
Concerned citizens fuelling fight against fracking
Ken Summers, a local member of NOFRAC, played a key role in obtaining the freedom of information requests that led to the public being informed of the Town of Windsor’s involvement with the disposal of brine water.
Summers said he was surprised the Department of Environment allowed the town to process the brine water at a treatment plant designed for biological waste.
“You don’t put untreated fracking waste into sewage treatment plants,” the Minasville resident said.
“Even if you don’t know to look at radioactivity, there’s huge questions about the chemicals.”
Summers said the “bare minimum” he wants from the government, as a resident of a community neighbouring the Kennetcook-based lagoons holding 11 million litres of frack water, is soil testing.
“For us, it’s even worse. We have these ponds sitting here, we still have most of the water in an unprotected location and nobody’s doing anything.”
Jennifer West, a groundwater co-ordinator with the Ecology Action Centre and member of NOFRAC, believesa lot can be learned from Hants County’s fracking-related woes.
“I think the situation that has come about in the past five years in Hants County really illustrates that it’s a very new industry; we don’t have an understanding of all of the impacts that it will have on our communities.”
In Kennetcook, West fears the fluids that seeped out of a leaking holding pond could potentially contaminate drinking water supplies. She says Nova Scotia Environment should conduct regular air, soil and water quality tests to closely monitor the environmental impact of the brine water storage in the area.
“I think it is a very distinct possibility of unknown chemicals leeching into the ground and impacting drinking water in that area.”
In Windsor, she hopes lessons have been learned about fracking.
“If I were a citizen in the Windsor area I would really be asking hard questions to the government as to what did they know about this waste before they allowed it to be dumped in their community,” she said.
“The government really should have been careful in knowing exactly what was in that waste before they OK’d it for being transported away from the site.”
West says the devotion of volunteers with grassroots organizations has pressured the provincial government to question Nova Scotia’s ties with the fracking industry, and she hopes the review due in 2014 will be a comprehensive report that puts human health before wealth.
“I think that the general public should know that fracking is a new method that has a lot of complicated side effects and impacts, and we don’t understand all of these different impacts,” she said.
“It’s a method that’s being sold by the oil and gas industry to produce oil and gas, so we have to be really careful of the messages that we hear and take them with a grain of salt.”
Triangle Petroleum’s new CEO, Jonathan Samuels, was unavailable for comment.