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Gasland brings sickening reality of fracking home

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The make up of fracking fluid is a proprietary mix that is as tight-lipped a secret as Colonel Saunders’ secret spice mix.  But there are more than 11 secret herbs and spices, more like hundreds of toxic and/or cancer-causing chemicals. 

Toluene, naphthalene, ethylene glycol, used in paint thinners, mothballs, and antifreeze, respectively, are some of the chemicals on the ingredient list.  While some of the concoction can be recovered, much of it remains underground, and where it flows is unpredictable. 

Effects of fracking

Somehow methane and other chemicals are finding their way into residents’ water supply.  Water wells and homes are exploding.  Animals, fish, and people are getting sick.  A chemist in Louisiana, recounts in Gasland, the experiences of athletes who were suffering from arsenic poisoning as a result of drinking large quantities of contaminated water.  Their doctors asked “Do you think your spouse is poisoning you?”

Testing of drinking water that has reportedly become murky and flammable after gas drilling began in the vicinity of homes provides little reassurance for residents.  Companies like Encana, who has operations on both sides of the border, conclude that the methane is “naturally” occurring.  (Plutonium and mercury are also “naturally” occurring.)  Other companies tell residents there is “nothing wrong with the water that can be a result of oil and gas production” in the area.

Because homeowners do not often think to test water quality before drilling occurs nearby, it is difficult to make the link.  It is even more difficult to point a direct finger at industry when companies are not required to disclose the chemical contents of the fracking fluids. 

Companies will not admit culpability.   They will, however, happily truck in water to families who live in areas adjacent to drilling as a neighbourly gesture.  In return, some residents are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Why fracking is allowed

In the US, a loophole recommended by former vice president Dick Cheney, exempts fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act.  This loophole has become known as the Haliburton Loophole, because Haliburton is one of the main companies that produces hydraulic fracturing chemicals.   (Recall that Cheney was former CEO of Haliburton and holds shares worth more than $12 million.)  

In B.C., the Water Act, which prohibits dumping contaminants or substances that would adversely affect groundwater quality, does not apply to any wells drilled for oil and gas.  Under the Oil and Gas Activities Act, companies need to obtain permits to frack, but they are not required to disclose the secret ingredient list.   The Oil and Gas Commission, the agency that oversees oil and gas industry in British Columbia, has said that future amendments to the Oil and Gas Activities Act may require companies to list fracking fluids.

Fracking in British Columbia

Companies like Shell are actively developing unconventional gas sources in the northeast corners of British Columbia.  Shell also has its sights set on drilling for coalbed methane in the headwaters of the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine Rivers in NW British Columbia.  This area, known also as the Sacred Headwaters, is a pristine complex of alpine lakes and streams, home to bears, moose, goats, sheep, and salmon, and is culturally significant for many First Nations.  Shell’s proposal earned the Sacred Headwaters top honours on the Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia’s Most Endangered Rivers list this year.  

Since fracking has leaped from documentary world to prime time television, perhaps this signifies the beginning of a much needed public dialogue. Unconventional gas development in British Columbia is on a major growth trajectory, and now is the time to discuss how our water resources are managed.

Gasland will be showing Sunday, November 21st, 3.45 at the VanCity Theatre. 

Image from Gasland

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