Water-quality study underway in Hudson’s Hope to provide data on effects of fracking

A study of water wells in an area of Hudson’s Hope is establishing baseline data on groundwater as hydraulic fracturing moves in next door.

Heavy criticism surrounds the fracking process — but the mayor of Hudsons’ Hope, Gwen Johansson, said the point of the study is not to halt the future of fracking, but to ensure that there is some evidence of what came before it.

“The overall concern is that we feel there needs to be some fundamental, baseline data,” said Johansson, also the president of the Custodians of the Peace, which headed up the study. “Roughly half of the population of Hudson’s Hope, in rural areas, are on water wells. Most get it from domestic wells; a few still haul water. The sub-surface rights have been sold under most of those properties.”

With the growth of the oil and gas industry in northeastern B.C., she said that it is these residents that will be affected.

“They’ve already encountered problems,” Johansson said. “One was that the sand came into the wells. Some people were able to pump and change the filters and able to continue to use the well.

“Three pulled the pumps and have to haul water. Some of those people have livestock — to haul water to keep livestock, that’s a huge problem. It also affects property value.”

One landowner, Terje Bakkeskaug, said he has to haul water twice a day on some days, driving his pickup truck with a 1,000-litre barrel about 20 kilometres to the municipal pump.

After his taps gradually went from pumping out greyish water to a thick sludge, to ceasing altogether, Bakkeskaug started hauling water both for domestic use and for his 50 heads of cattle.

Another Beryl Prairie resident, Claire Johnson, also pulled his pump after he said it completely plugged up.

“Pressure pushed mud and gravel 22 feet up the pipe,” said Johnson.

He replaced the whole water system, but eventually also turned to hauling water instead. He said the process, including labour, probably cost him around $15,000.

“I’ve spoken with a number of people whose wells have sanded in during the period when fracking was taking place,” said Katherine Trajan of GW Solutions, the engineering firm specializing in hydrogeology and groundwater that took on the study. “That connection, we haven’t studied it in detail, and it isn’t really a smoking gun in terms of fracking having that effect.”

With a grant from the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., the Custodians reached out to GW Solutions to study the water quality of 16 wells in the area, 15 residential and one municipal.

Bakkeskaug’s well was sanded in by the time testing had taken place, with problems beginning at the end of August 2011, around the time he said fracking began about 300 yards from his house.

“There are multiple things that could cause a well to sand in that have nothing to do with fracking, whether it’s bad luck that this happened at the same time or that fracking loosened sand in the area that may have aggravated a poorly constructed well to begin with,” said Trajan.

Trajan added that the proposal GW is working on includes looking at the water supplies that have been lost and whether they can offer indications of the other water wells that are at risk.

“What we know about Hudson’s Hope, being so close up to the mountains, there are a lot of natural fault lines,” she said. “So the earth there is more broken, it’s more fractured and more likely to have pathways.

“Even before you add fracking into the equation, there is a chance [contaminants] are in your water, which makes it so much more important to get this information.”

Rob Morgan, chief operating officer and senior vice-president at Crew Energy – one of the companies operating along the stretch of Beryl Prairie – said that the company does its own groundwater testing before the fracking process.

“We do baseline water testing – that’s very important for everybody,” he said.

“Our practice is, any landowner within 800 metres of an active operation, we’ll go in and sample their well – any water wells in the area.”

He said that data is shared with the landowners, and added that if any residents beyond 800 metres are concerned and contact the company, they will also go out and test that water, at no cost to the resident.

Morgan went further and said that throughout the period of fracking in the area, if residents bring any concerns about their water forward, Crew will go back and retest the water. Morgan said, thus far, only one well has been retested, and there was no evidence of material change.

Unless the request is made, however, Morgan said water is not tested again after the initial sample.

Hardy Friedrich, communications manager for the Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), said that protecting groundwater during hydraulic fracturing is a priority, and that regulations are designed so that water used in the fracturing process does not come into contact with groundwater aquifers.

“The Drilling and Production Regulation requires steel casing and cementing to a depth of 600 metres to isolate water from natural gas wells,” said Friedrich. “B.C. has never had a reported incident of water contamination resulting from hydraulic fracturing.”

Despite reassurances, allegations from environmental advocates and other groups of major contamination due to fracking persist. Some residents remain concerned about their water levels.

“The reaction from the residents has been a bit mixed,” said Trajan. “From the conversations I had with people in the area, there are multiple families who choose not to drink the water, and that’s not across the board. There are families who treat the water and there are people who just drink it straight.”

Of the water supply tested on Beryl Prairie, Trajan said there was arsenic in many of the samples, which means that the aquifers in the area are naturally high in the human carcinogen.

“It’s common in parts of B.C.,” she said. “But we couldn’t comment on whether arsenic levels have changed. It’s a natural contaminant that comes out of rocks in these places.”

The ability to determine whether levels have changed brings back Johansson’s point of having that comparative data to begin with.

“I don’t know if there is any connection with oil and gas fracking. I also don’t know that there isn’t,” said Johansson. “What we’re trying to do is not suggest there is any connection – we’re trying to establish baseline data.”

Johansson said they are hoping to do a second phase of the study, perhaps getting information on what went wrong with the water wells that ceased, like Johnson’s and Bakkeskaug’s.

“We have had further funding approved ... we just need to find co-funding for that, hopefully before the end of the year,” said Trajan. “Some commitment from other companies in the area or the OGC itself perhaps as a small pilot project, using this to say this is the type of data that should be collected.”

Trajan noted that the cost of this sort of testing is minimal for a company, but to the individual resident, could be a prohibitive factor.

“Our work to date has been with the residents,” she said. “We’re trying to open up that conversation so that it is with the regulator and with the companies. We think the data is critical because of the work they’re doing.

“Ideally the industry would be paying to have this data done in areas where they’ll operate. They are very interested, as well, in having the groundwater protected.”

She said that they have been in talks with Crew Energy in particular, and Morgan confirmed that they received a proposal looking for funding on the project.

“We did talk internally about a monetary contribution for that project,” he said.

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