“This land is everything to us”: A story of fracking in Alberta

September 26, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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The Hawkwoods: Standing up for Prime Ranch Country and the Livelihoods of All

The westerly wind is not a welcome presence at the Hawkwoods’ cattle ranch just north of Cochrane in Lochend, Alberta. It often carries the flaring emissions from many of the 70 some hydraulically fractured wells in the “sweet spot” of the Cardium play upwind of property owned by the family for 40 years.

Since 2009, when horizontal hydraulic fracturing was first earnestly employed in the extraction of Lochend’s tight oil, Nielle and Howard have endured a disheartening array of struggles from compromised health and dead cattle to earthquakes and fractured community. With the collaboration of a small handful of neighbours, they have slowly uncovered the source of their misfortune.

It has been a steep learning curve, they say, and it has been difficult. “There are many, many unanswered questions about the effects of this industry,” says Nielle. “We feel that we’ve experienced them directly, as far as our health is concerned with the air pollution, and as far as our water issues are concerned.”

The Hawkwoods’ most acute concern has been the air pollution caused by the unmonitored and poorly regulated flaring of frack fluid components. They explain that the hydraulic fracturing process injects a frack fluid infused with undisclosed chemicals down the wellbore. Some of this fluid is brought back to surface mixed with produced water and gas. Certain chemical components of the frack fluid are separated alongside potentially marketable natural gas, which is then burnt off in ground-shielded flares. The heat produced by the combustion of methane causes some of these chemicals to react and form new ones that were not necessarily present at the time of injection.

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A ground shielded flare in the Lochend area.

The ground-shielded flares are often mistaken for or portrayed as incinerators, which often have the capacity to filter toxins and ensure a clean burn. More accurately, ground-shielded flares ignite methane and other fluids as they enter the air within the visual confines of a steel cylinder. The sole purpose of the steel housing is to hide the flame from possible onlookers. In the past, prospecting oil companies were known to assess the productivity of a competing company’s well by the size of the flame on a particular flare.

The Hawkwoods are especially affected by the emissions because their home sits downwind of the flaring and at a similar elevation.

“Some of those chemicals are very dangerous when burnt to decomposition,” says Nielle. “They form very toxic gases.”

A major challenge in assessing emission risks is that operating companies do not disclose all the chemicals they inject into the ground. An anonymous engineer, formerly employed in the oil and gas sector, managed to acquire a list of frack fluid chemicals used in at least some of the wells in the Lochend area. He reported to Nielle and Howard that one of the chemicals that could be emitted into the atmosphere is known as phosgene. It has been used as a chemical warfare agent and is formed through the reaction of carbon monoxide and chlorine gas.

Phosgene is one of countless chlorinated hydrocarbons, many of which are used as pesticides such as DDT. The EPA reports that phosgene is “extremely toxic by acute inhalation exposure” and is known to cause severe respiratory problems including pulmonary edema, severe eye irritation, burns to the skin, other symptoms, and death. While medical professionals cited other causes, phosgene is believed by many to have led to the death of one lady in the area.

According to the information acquired by the engineer, a chemical called dibromoacetonitrile is used in the frack fluid itself in the Lochend area. It is also potentially fatal by inhalation and when burned to decomposition, it forms a variety of new toxins including cyanide gas. Nielle says, “we assume that when they burn well effluent, they’re also burning this chemical… this is not being monitored, it’s not being regulated properly.”

Nielle and Howard have recently learned that the company that had been using the chemical has now stopped using nitriles in their frack fluids. The Hawkwoods suspect that this change resulted from landowners educating operators and sending letters about the dangerous nature of nitrile compounds.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” asks Nielle. “The companies are free to use dangerous methods and materials until local residents become aware and become vocal.”

The Hawkwoods feel fortunate though. They live approximately five kilometres from most of the flaring, and they know others who have been more severely impacted. However, Nielle has experienced unnatural hair loss and both her and Howard’s general health has suffered markedly.

“I’ve lost a lot of hair,” says Nielle, “we’ve had skin irritation, nasal irritation, eye irritation. And these are chronic problems… They’ve just been building up over the last three years since fracking started here.”

Nielle and Howard have been documenting their health issues to provide a base of evidence that will be useful if authorities choose to acknowledge the impacts of dangerous emissions. “They can use us as guinea pigs and look at what happens to us to get some basis for saying that there are health concerns with this technology,” says Nielle.

It is expensive and difficult to test the air quality because the list of chemicals that could be present is endless and unknown, but in places where it has been tested for a limited range of pollutants, high levels of benzene were recorded. Benzene is known to cause leukemia and Nielle suspects it has also contributed to her hair loss.

The Hawkwoods are worried that some of these same chemicals are also entering the groundwater. At one point, their tap water had an “off” taste that led them to stop drinking it and last November, it caused Howard’s skin to sting. It is possible that fluids injected down the wellbore migrate beyond the production zone through intercommunication with old wells or along hydraulically induced fractures, enlarged natural fractures, or compromised casing and cement.

Also last November, Howard noticed that the ever-present algae in their horses’ water trough suddenly died. The University of Calgary tested the water, which comes from the same well that supplies the Hawkwoods’ domestic needs. Tests in November and January revealed high levels of chlorides and a pH level that fluctuated between 7.2 and 8.6, a significant rise from 6.5 two or three years earlier. The Hawkwoods have been unable to rid the water trough of dead algae and the horses still refuse to drink from it, but Nielle and Howard have resumed using the tap water themselves. They have been told their well is fed by an underground river that can likely flush out contamination relatively quickly. This leads the Hawkwoods to wonder whose water well will be the next to draw up those same contaminants from the subterranean stream.

Nielle and Howard have a second water well that supplies their herd of 175 cattle. When the algae died in the horses’ trough, it disappeared altogether from the cattle’s troughs. This coincided with an increase in the cattle’s mineral consumption and by mid-December, consumption had tripled and the cows were becoming extremely thin. Their veterinarian investigated but could not remedy the problem. Six cows wasted away and died while four others were euthanized. Autopsies were performed on two of them and a jelly-like substance that often indicates starvation was found around their organs. The feed was tested and was found to be nutritionally adequate and cows that were not affected maintained good health and normal body weight.

The well in the feedlot was tested privately by another third party in December and again confirmed high levels of chlorides. The vet told Howard that this imbalance of chlorides in the water could have caused nutrients to be flushed right through the cows’ digestive systems. This would have led to their starvation and would likely explain the increase in mineral consumption.

This spring, the Hawkwoods noticed spots of dead grass all across their 960-acre ranch. Wherever the cattle had urinated over the winter, the grass had died, costing them maybe more than an acre of productive pastureland. One of the large agribusinesses that Howard deals with took soil samples in hopes of determining the problem. “They could be held responsible if there is a major problem in the chemical industry, and they don’t want to be branded with that problem,” says Howard.

Soil samples were taken from the centres of the dead spots and from areas of normal growth about 18 inches away. “Dead” samples contained more than 3 times as much chlorine as “healthy” samples. Significantly higher levels of uranium and strontium were also found.

In addition to the air and water pollution, the Hawkwood ranch itself sometimes shakes and hops with fracking-induced tremors. Howard first experienced this in August of 2011 while out tending to the horses.

“The whole barn started to shake and tremble and the horse bolted out of the barn,” says Howard. “I was trying to get the saddle off of him and the whole barn swayed and I heard cracking and creaking noises.”

He immediately ran over the hill to where he knew a seismic crew was operating that day, suspecting that they were responsible for the tremors. To his surprise, the crew explained that all seismic work had been stopped earlier in the day due to a fracking operation nearby. The reverberations caused by hydraulic fracturing can distort the testing results and whenever fracking is occurring, seismic testing must stop. The seismic workers, who also felt the ground hop, indicated that the fracking had caused the tremors.

Many landowners in the area have felt tremors on several occasions, but the closest seismic monitoring station, which is on the opposite side of Calgary, insists that the tremors were not picked up by monitoring equipment and did not occur.

The Hawkwoods’ barn was damaged and they were left to make the repairs themselves. They wonder whether the cracked cement in their barn walls is any indication of what might happen to cement casing in the wellbores themselves. The cement is in place to prevent the migration of gas and other fluids from the production zone to other strata and drinking water aquifers.

To date, the tremors remain unaddressed and little has been done to mitigate water and air pollution or prevent future problems.

“It seems like the regulators have basically walked away,” says Howard. He and Nielle have sent letters to the premier and to the ministers of health, agriculture, and energy, but they have only been told to talk to the ERCB (now the Alberta Energy Regulator, AER). The ERCB would then tell them to speak with Alberta Environment, whose representatives turned the Hawkwoods away on the grounds that they had received 400 similar complaints in southern Alberta alone.

The ERCB has held community meetings, but Nielle says any concerns that were raised were simply brushed aside. “They’ve just basically said, ‘well we know what we’re doing.’”

On other occasions, the regulator has not been so bold. “We can’t stop them,” conceded a representative in response to residents’ concerns about industry activities, says Nielle.

In the meantime, Nielle and Howard are left to do what they can on their own. They have written to newspapers, met with neighbours, and connected with Albertans across the province. They have found that many Albertans are uninformed or misinformed. This does not surprise them given that most fracking disputes are never made public.

“We’re not the only ranchers who’ve experienced these problems. Most people don’t want to come forward for one reason or another,” says Nielle. She and her husband explain that the pressure to keep quiet about the impacts of fracking can easily be overwhelming.

“It’s very difficult to take a stand. Many people, many ranchers and farmers depend on the oil and gas industry for added income because they’re not making very much money farming and ranching,” says Nielle. Many who are employed in the oil and gas sector fear that sharing their stories could cost them their jobs. “They’re absolutely terrified,” says Howard.

The Hawkwoods are caught in the very middle of it all.

“It’s an absolute disaster,” says Nielle. “It’s a public health disaster. It’s an environmental disaster. It’s a disaster for future generations. And it’s very, very difficult to come out and say that when some members of the community are gaining income from this. And not everyone has experienced the ill effects and not everyone who has experienced the ill effects wants to admit it.”

Those not employed by the industry are pressured into silence by neighbours who fear that their property value will plummet if the public discovers that the air and the water in the area is unfit for humans or livestock.

“Some people simply don’t want to believe that there’s a problem,” says Nielle. “So it really fractures the neighbourhood.”

“It’s a big issue, it’s very serious, it’s people’s livelihoods,” she says.

The choice between secure finances and good health leads many Albertans to deal with the impacts of fracking quietly. The Hawkwoods have heard countless stories of contaminated well water, compromised human health, new springs tainted with frack fluids, and livestock fertility problems; all of these were shared confidentially in the shadows of non-disclosure agreements signed with oil and gas companies.

“If you have a problem, you are not to tell anyone about it,” says Nielle. “Everything is terribly secret. I feel that that should be illegal. I don’t feel that anything like damaged water or air pollution or people becoming sick should be a matter that can be non-disclosed. I think that’s a public health concern and everyone who has had an effect from the oil and gas industry should be allowed to speak out in public about that without worrying about being sued.”

Several people have told Nielle and Howard that companies responsible for contaminating their wells have only provided them with clean drinking water on the condition of non-disclosure. The provision of clean water sometimes involves expensive distillers or fresh water pipelines.

At the Hawkwood ranch, the air continues to be polluted and neither Nielle nor Howard is willing to be silenced. Their determination carries them through a challenging struggle.

“It’s been scary,” says Nielle, “it’s been very frightening, because of the power that the oil and gas industry has in this province, and because of the fact that the government seems always to come down on the side of the industry. It’s very disappointing that our government chooses to ignore the many complaints and many concerns that people have expressed.”

“We try to live as normal a life as possible. We try not to think about this when we can possibly avoid it. We do what we can and then we try to put it away and just live our lives and enjoy what we can. Some of our neighbours have moved away, but the question is where do you go? This is proliferating all across the province.”

“You can’t run and hide. We decided to stand and do our best to fight this as long as we can.”

The challenges have been numerous, but their deteriorating health has been especially hard. “I think the most difficult thing around here has been my wife with her loss of hair,” says Howard.

Nonetheless, Nielle and Howard somehow maintain remarkable composure.

“Anger is to me is a devastating emotion,” says Nielle. “It’s a cancer in your life. And we try to avoid that, try to have some understanding of where these people are coming from…. The emotion is mostly sadness and disappointment, and real concern— for not only us, but for future generations.”

“Mostly it’s just sadness and disappointment that the government that we elect has abdicated its responsibility to protect its citizens and protect its future.”

Howard knows how to crack a good joke and he suggests the situation might just be some kind of “black humour.” He quickly changes his mind and concludes that it is not very funny at all. The things that are most important to him are being taken from beneath his feet.

“One more year of this, and we’re officially out of business,” he says.

“Here we are, we stay here, we work hard, and we take care of the land and we’re not getting anything out of it anymore,” says Nielle. “We’re frightened, we’re worried, and it’s shattered our lives.”

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“We absolutely love our land,” she says. “It’s beautiful, we have a wonderful view. We have had wonderful fresh water and fresh air and that’s really been called into question since fracking started in our neighbourhood.”

“This is our refuge,” she says. “It was everything to us, it’s where we raised our children. It was a healthy lifestyle for them; they went to a small community school during their first years. It’s the warmth of community and the caring of close neighbours. It was everything to us, it was our home base. It was just the spot that we needed to be. We didn’t need to go anywhere else. Now it’s not the same.”

The changes being inflicted to their land now are perhaps the most significant since the last ice age. Of 12 sections in the immediate area, only 50 acres have ever been cultivated.

“We still have all the wild grasses that have been here for ten thousand years,” says Howard. He and his neighbours to either side are of the same mind, “Nope, it will never see the plough.”

The land is as important to the Hawkwoods as is their health. “What people don’t get often, is the environment is us, and at a very basic level,” says Nielle. “It’s what we breathe, what we drink, what we eat.”

“The future of this province will depend on fresh water, healthy productive farmland, on beautiful areas where tourism can happen, on good agriculture. And once the oil and gas is gone, what will be left? That’s the question, if they don’t take care of the environment.”

It is Nielle and Howard’s opinion that although oil and gas companies are the ones fracking and flaring, they are pursuing profits and are doing so very well— often in compliance with the rules that have been set out for them. They feel the provincial government is to be held responsible.

“The Alberta Government is put in place to protect us, to protect our environment, to see to the interest of Albertans. And that, I feel, is where they’ve failed completely,” says Nielle.

Howard feels that an additional interest that has not been upheld is economic in nature. He says the wells in the Lochend area produce on average about 900 to 1000 barrels per day. “That’s a lot of oil, and that’s a lot of revenue out of those wells.”

He is frustrated by what he deems a failure to properly collect royalty revenue and mentions that companies are given a royalty holiday during the most productive phase of a well’s life.

“As far as I’m concerned, if we give them the royalty holidays… that well should belong to the Alberta government… because they haven’t put any money back into the system.”

This issue, however, is secondary to the more pressing health concerns and environmental concerns. The impacts of fracking and flaring are at the root of the Hawkwoods’ struggle.

“They really don’t know what they’re doing underground,” says Howard. He and Nielle are proponents of a moratorium on fracking until it can be done safely.

“I don’t want to leave a toxic load for the next generation,” says Howard. “It’s the younger generation that’s going to have to clean up this mess.”

“My request of Albertans is to stand up and be accounted for and tell your stories of what you’ve had,” says Howard. “Write to the various governments, talk to your government ministers and do something.” Nielle requests that those who have not yet been affected become informed and help work toward a healthy future. It is her hope that enough people will become aware of the problems that “the government will be forced to act.”

“I’d just like people to know that this is not just a rural problem, that we’re the canaries in the coalmine, and this is a very serious threat to our overall environment,” says Nielle. Howard adds that there is a proposal to frack within the city limits of Calgary.

Informing the general public is a daunting task, but the Hawkwoods are not about to give up.

“I think what we’re standing for is something that no longer exists…” says Nielle, “beautiful, pristine farmland, wonderful water, fresh air.”

“What does keep me going … is the thought that someday, if I get to see my grandchildren, they’ll say to me ‘okay Grandma, you were around when it was still safe to drink the water, breathe the air, and eat the food, what did you do to keep it that way?’ And I hope I have an answer for them.”

(Ed. note: Watch the video of the Hawkwoods below, one in a series of documentary videos from the AlbertaVoices project.)

Tags: air pollution, Fracking, Health, hydraulic fracturing, migration, water contamination