Province avoids investigation of human health impacts of fracking, despite independent scientific review warning of unknown risks to air and water
By Sarah Cox, for The Narwhal
The B.C. government has quietly released its response to an independent scientific panel’s report on hydraulic fracturing as it ushers in a fracking boom to supply the LNG Canada project with unconventional gas.
Notably absent from the government’s news release — posted on its website Thursday but strangely not sent out to media — is any commitment to investigate the human health impacts of fracking in the province’s northeast.
The issue was flagged by Dawson Creek doctors as a potential cause for concern after they saw patients with symptoms they could not explain, including nosebleeds, respiratory illnesses and rare cancers, as well as a surprising number of gioblastomas, a malignant brain cancer.
The independent scientific review did not include an examination of the public health implications of fracking, in keeping with the government’s quiet assurance to the industry lobby group Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that the hot button issue would not be included in the panel’s mandate.
Even so, the panel found that fracking entails numerous unknown risks to human health and the environment.
Panel members cautioned the severity of those risks is unknown due to a lack of data, noting they were not aware of any health-related studies being conducted in northeast B.C., which is already covered with thousands of fracking wells, including in the middle of communities and on farmland.
‘Highly toxic compounds’
B.C. Green Party environment critic Sonia Furstenau pointed out that other jurisdictions around the world have identified human health impacts as a reason for banning fracking.
“We know that the mix of chemicals being used and being pumped into the ground include highly toxic compounds and we should absolutely be determining what any impacts are to human health,” Furstenau told The Narwhal.
“There’s no way these kinds of things should be proceeding without that information.”
The government’s decision to proceed with fracking and liquefied natural gas development is “deeply troubling,” Furstenau said.
(Below: Sonia Furstenau, Green Party Environment Critic)
The fracked gas will be shipped through TransCanada’s new Coastal GasLink pipeline to Kitimat, where it will be cooled in massive compressors to minus 162 degrees Celsius, the point at which gas turns into liquid and becomes easier to transport in ocean tankers. LNG Canada will burn its own natural gas for the energy-intensive compression process, resulting in substantial greenhouse gas pollution.
The LNG Canada project will emit 3.45 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the provincial government, which promised the cleanest LNG in the world even though claims of “clean LNG” have been thoroughly debunked.
The project’s emissions will represent more than one-quarter of B.C.’s legislated targets for carbon pollution in 2050, set at about 13 megatonnes a year.
“This should alarm all British Columbians,” Furstenau said, pointing out that climate change is already causing drought and forest fires across the province, including in the northeast.
On June 18, the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission ordered cutbacks to water diversions at northeast oil and gas operations due to drought. That follows a statement to the expert panel from a commission representative that the past 10 years in the northeast have been drier than usual, at a time that fracking operations are using substantial amounts of water.
“The government doesn’t seem to want to address the fundamental problem at the centre of this,” Furstenau said.
“They’ve not only approved but massively subsidized an LNG industry that will require a massive increase to fracking in northeast B.C. — and a massive increase to the amount of water that would go into those fracking operations.”
“You cannot make sense of what the evidence and the data is showing and the response and decisions from government. It’s like they are operating in entirely different universes.”
Furstenau said the government “continues to try to justify a project that will increase emissions, as well as risk contaminating community drinking water, and endangering human health.”
The expert scientific panel found that baseline data and the ongoing monitoring of surface water and groundwater quantity in the northeast was insufficient.
“In the view of the B.C. ministry of health expert who presented to the panel, current water quality sampling (i.e. the private wells study) is not being carried out to screen for potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing fluids and wastewater on drinking water,” the panel concluded.
Expert panel flagged leaking fracking ponds as cause for concern
The panel also found a “profound absence of knowledge” about the presence and migration of fracking fluids — a proprietary mix of chemicals — below the ground.
Dissolved arsenic was found to be the main health-based constituent of concern, with about 30 per cent of samples exceeding the maximum allowable concentration guideline. The panel noted that higher arsenic levels could potentially occur in unfiltered groundwater.
The panel also categorized the potential for leaks from fracking containment ponds as “moderate to high,” based on the fact that two of four decommissioned ponds were found to have leaked.
Following the panel’s report, The Narwhal revealed that a large fracking pond nearly 400 kilometres north of Fort St. John is leaking. The pond is filled with 113,000 cubic metres of sludge and water that may be contaminating soil and groundwater through a leak in its outer lining, according to the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.
The pond was owned by Ranch Energy Corporation, a Calgary-based company that went into receivership last year leaving 700 gas wells in B.C. and a sea of debt. Ranch was one of three fracking companies operating in B.C. that went belly-up last year, with taxpayers ultimately on the hook for clean-up costs that far exceed an oil and gas commission fund.
About 60 per cent of the gas for the LNG facility will come from new fracking in B.C.’s northeast — a boreal region rich in biodiversity that is home to endangered woodland caribou and many other species vulnerable to extinction.
B.C. government says it will map aquifers and observe groundwater
In its uncirculated news release, the B.C. government says it will install new groundwater observation wells near Fort Nelson, complete mapping of 55 aquifers and install hydrometric monitoring systems to gather information about surface water in collaboration with First Nations.
The government also says it will implement an outreach and education initiative for affected landowners and fracking dam owners in the northeast and map zones “that are likely to experience greater ground motion from seismic events.”
Furstenau noted the expert panel’s report warned of serious regulatory infractions, water contamination and a lack of information, oversight and monitoring, all of which “make it nearly impossible to evaluate the current state of our water and air quality.”
“It’s too risky,” she said.
The government news release said a working group has been established to address the panel’s 97 recommendations.
Working group members include staff from the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, the ministry of energy, mines and petroleum resources, the ministry of environment and climate change strategy and the ministry of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development.
The working group will provide Energy Minister Michelle Mungall with an update by the end of this year.
Editor's Note: For additional information on the health impacts of fracking, here are two links: