Comox Valley Hears 'Voices from the Sacrifice Zone'

Fracking has residents of the Peace region “enmeshed like a spider’s web”

Gavin MacRae

It was a long rap sheet, but speakers from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment detailed the dangers of fracking to people in the Peace region of BC, this Sunday at the Florence Filberg Lounge.

Voices from the Sacrifice Zone was hosted by the Watershed Sentinel.

Frenetic natural gas development using fracking – an extraction procedure where high-pressure water, sand, and a cocktail of proprietary (and not publicly known) chemicals are pumped into gas wells to stimulate production – have rural residents of the Peace region “enmeshed like a spider’s web,” said event moderator Dr. Warren Bell.

The impacts of fracking are hard to miss: round-the-clock flaring of excess gas, open-pit wastewater ponds the size of small lakes, and the constant drone of diesel-powered equipment. Other effects are insidious, such as increased rates of terminal cancers and lung diseases.

Karen Leven, an environmental scientist from Dawson Creek, opened the event. She said 28,000 wells have been drilled in the Peace region since 2005. Future LNG capacity in BC is expected to prompt 100,000 more wells, and 85% of them will rely on fracking.

Leven described a region under siege from fracking activity, with few controls on the pace of development, and environmental recommendations ignored. People are “basically totally powerless” to control or stop fracking in their neighbourhoods, said Leven.

Fracking degrades surface and groundwater and air quality, impacts fish and wildlife, spikes methane emissions, and puts residents at risk of gas explosions and earthquakes, she said.

Leven said the disparity between environmental regulations in the mining industry versus oil and gas is “night and day.”

Retention ponds for mining operations must be double-lined, and spills are closely monitored and reported. Retention ponds for fracking wastewater are not required to be lined, said Leven. The wastewater is allowed to percolate into the ground. (A 2016 study published in Nature found fracking fluid can contain arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, lead, mercury, and scores of other chemicals).

Gas has been touted as green energy which would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Levin, but when the effects of escaped methane emissions are factored, natural gas is a potent cause of climate change, disguised as a solution.

Married couple Pat and Jim Strasky operate a grain farm in the region. The view from their farmhouse is dominated by multiple fracking sites, often flaring excess gas. An unlined, 70-acre fracking wastewater pond sits nearby, with a mountainous earth backdrop from its excavation. Jim struggles to move farming equipment down roads worn to muddy, rutted tracks from oil and gas trucks that can require 5000 trips per frack. Complaints about the road degradation are ignored. “If there’s a frack on, there will be 100 trucks in 24 hours,” said Pat. “They’ll go by the house, day and night.”

During fracking, large-diameter water hoses can stretch for kilometres through culverts, in ditches, and over roads, immobilizing farming equipment. “It’s incredible, the amount of material they pump down those holes, between the water and the frack sand, and the chemicals to go with it.”

The land for wellpads and other infrastructure has been pruned from the Agricultural Land Reserve, and Jim figured about 12% of their farmland had reduced yield.

Dr. Ulrike Meyer, a physician in Dawson Creek, talked about the health risks of living in the Sacrifice Zone. Cancer rates and respiratory conditions in the region are elevated – including pulmonary fibrosis, that Meyer suspects is linked to the silica from fracking fluid. Meyer said fracking can bring naturally occurring radioactive material up from deep below the ground, but the link between the radioactive material and cancer rates is to-date unproven.

Assigning definitive blame to fracking is elusive because studies and data are scarce, said Meyer, but individual case studies are compelling.

One of her patients suffered from fainting spells and cognitive decline. Near his house sat a fracking wastewater holding tank the size of a swimming pool. In winter, propane heaters prevented the water from freezing, and steam would waft off the tank toward his house. When the tank was eventually removed, his health quickly rebounded. The current regulated back-set for wastewater tanks is 100m from a residence, and Meyer called on that to be extended to 1600m.

Testing of pregnant women in Dawson Creek showed levels of benzene, a carcinogen and known endocrine disruptor, three times higher than normal. Levels of barium, strontium, manganese, and aluminum were also “way higher than the rest of the Canadian population,” said Meyer. A study by UBC showed the same metals are in the region’s water at elevated levels, and contamination from fracking is suspected.

Another effect of fracking are “boomtown” problems – lower education levels, and increased drug use, sexually transmitted diseases, and crime.

“The industry needs to prove to the public that they are not causing harm,” said Meyer. She called for a full public inquiry on the effects of fracking to human health, drinking water, and the environment.

The event ended on an upbeat note with Don Pettit, a renewable energy expert in the Peace Region, speaking on how to move past fossil fuels and the problems they create. “We are now in the midst of the most dramatic and important energy transition in human history. The shift to the new clean energies of wind, solar, thermal, conservation, and energy efficiency provides clear answers to our global problems,” said Pettit. “We know what the problems are, we know how to fix them, and the tools to do so are in our hands.”

 

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