Sunday, December 18, 2011

Disposing of Fracking Waste Water

Mr Peter Hill has a small problem – what to do with 15 million litres of waste water? According to a story in the Halifax Herald, his Triangle Petroleum Corp would like to pump 15 million litres of its fracking waste water back underground in Kennetcook (near Windsor), and the Province says that they can’t. Thank you, Province of Nova Scotia. (7 October 2011 Halifax Herald story below)
Fracking is a contentious issue. Natural gas is often found in porous rocks, associated with oil and coal deposits. It flows to the wellhead through its own pressure; it’s not pumped like oil. In non-porous rocks the gas is trapped where it sits, and it takes hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of the rock to open microscopic crevices through which the gas can flow to the wellhead. But to accomplish the fracturing requires pumping many volumes of water and chemicals and sand into those rock deposits. A lot of the fracking liquids come back up the well bore and must be treated at the surface. The fracking fluid is mostly water but the small proportion that is chemicals and contaminants is pretty nasty stuff, and a small proportion of say, 15 million litres, can add up to quite a little bit of stuff that I don’t want in my wellwater. And on the way back up the bore from 4,000 feet some can get into the groundwater that flows along near the surface and feeds my well.
Mr Hill wants to pump his 15 million litres of waste water back down into the ground “deep enough so that it is far away from the water table”. I bet that he doesn’t live anywhere near the site where he is going to pump that water.
Here in Cumberland County we have some experience with pumping water underground, and with industrial contaminants. In Nappan, near the salt plant, there are many people who are unable to use their wellwater because of salt contamination. Salt water intrusion into ground water is nothing new to a lot of people here, especially in the corridor from Nappan down through Oxford to Pugwash, and even as far west as Wentworth. We have salt and gypsum deposits all through there, and bad water. But the Nappan salt plant pumps hot water down into the salt deposits and pumps the resulting brine back up to the surface where the water is evaporated and the salt is refined. Years ago a man from the area told me that on the days that the plant was pumping the hot water downhole he could see the silt at the bottom of his dug well turn all roily. He could use his wellwater for his toilet but he couldn’t use it for drinking, cooking or bathing, and the salt made it difficult to get his laundry detergent to work properly. The geology of the area is very different but I bet that he wouldn’t care for fracking fluid being pumped underground near his well.
To solve the general problem of contaminated wellwater in the Nappan area the Municipality of Cumberland County installed a free public access water source in a little heated building near the Home Hardware store in Nappan. The water is piped from the excellent water supply of the Town of Amherst, and the County pays the water bill. County staff were amazed at the volume of water their residents drew.
Amherst has a lovely water supply located in Tidnish, about 10 miles outside town. This forested, largely-undeveloped area is full of artesian wells, and old stories abound of water-filled sinkholes in pastures where a cow had fallen in and was never seen again. I have paddled up the fast flowing Tidnish River which rises in the wellfield area, and I was amazed at how few streams fed into the river but there was still a tremendous water flow. The groundwater fed the river.
Amherst developed this wellfield about 25 years ago to solve its own groundwater problem. Their municipal wells were originally located throughout the town but they had to be abandoned when they became contaminated by dry cleaning fluid from downtown shops. Dry cleaning fluid is Tetrachloroethylene, a sweet-smelling, colourless liquid which is an excellent solvent of organic materials (i.e., grass or coffee stains) and was widely used for dry cleaning, degreasing, paint stripping, etc. It is also a carcinogen, is implicated in Parkinson’s Disease, and is an environmental nightmare as it flows easily into groundwater but sinks below the water table where it almost impossible to remediate. Once contaminated, the groundwater is unusable for several lifetimes. (see Wikipedia)
Groundwater is a very emotional issue. All of those folks who live in town and have municipal water pumped to their homes have no idea what it means to be your own water utility. I know several fellows who run municipal water utilities, and they bear absolutely no resemblance to the strange brothers who ran the Walkerton water system and sat on lab reports of E. Coli contamination while their townspeople sickened and died. Our guys in northern Nova Scotia worry about their systems and fret about chlorination levels out at the ends of their pipes, and water main breaks, and reservoir levels. They are partners with the NS Department of Environment guys who sample water un-announced in gas station washrooms to make sure that all is well. It is their diligence and concern that lets jaded homeowners use the garden hose to wash grass clippings off their driveway and down to the street gutter. Grass clippings that should be raked back onto the lawn are washed away with pure, chlorinated, potable water. Townies have it so good.
We folk who own our own wells also fret, but we worry about dropping groundwater levels, agricultural and forestry chemicals in our watershed, naturally occurring radon gas or arsenic dissolved in the drinking water. We worry about some large and government-supported industrial activity that impacts our water. Like the potash mines in Sussex and Quispamsis. The salt mine in Nappan. Open pit coal mines on Bouladerie Island. The Boat Harbour cesspool that doesn’t even pretend to treat the effluent from the Abercrombie paper mill. Runoff from blueberry fields that ring the hillsides above Westchester Station.
The last thing that we need is 15 million litres of fracking fluids pumped underground, “well below the water table”.
Once rural groundwater is contaminated there are very few remedies available to homeowners. Sometimes a municipal water supply can be extended to the affected area, although costs are very high and are usually borne by homeowners. Trucked water is another solution, but it is a bad one and an expensive one. I lived with a trucked water supply for about 5 years and found it very inconvenient. We had an aluminum tank like an oil tank in the furnace room and a municipal truck came 2 or 3 times a week and filled us up. We always had to watch the water level when planning showers and laundry, and if we washed a lot of clothes the day before delivery (to use up as much of our water as we could), and then delivery never came, we were in a bad way.
If groundwater is contaminated by a mining or energy company they may be forced to deliver trucked water, but when the company goes under the water supply disappears.
With very few exceptions, a contaminated water table does not clear within the economic lifetime of a home. Property values sink and “peaceful enjoyment of the property” fades.
No energy executive would ever go fracking in his own watershed. Why should we let them frack in ours?
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Waste water issue mires energy firm
Friday 7 October Halifax Herald
By BRETT BUNDALE
Business Reporter
The disposal of waste water is proving to be a major stumbling block for a junior oil and gas company eyeing Hants County shale gas deposits.
Triangle Petroleum Corp. would like to pump nearly 15 million litres of waste water deep underground.
“We have been seeking approval to re-inject the water back into the rock formation,” Peter Hill, chief executive officer of Triangle, said Thursday in an interview at the Core All Energy conference in Halifax. “The waste water would be pumped deep enough so it’s far away from the water table. This is normal industry practice.”
The waste water has been sitting in two large brine ponds since 2007, when the Denver outfit drilled two wells on the Windsor block in Kennetcook.
An Environment Department spokeswoman said a formal application from Triangle to inject industrial waste water into existing wells was received in 2010.
“We did not grant approval because we have a best-practices guide and injecting waste water goes against our best practices,” Lori Errington said. “We’re currently in discussions with the company to find an agreeable way that will allow the two ponds to be remediated.”
Hill said the province has advised Triangle to empty the ponds by trucking the waste water to two industrial facilities for treatment and sea disposal.
“It’s far too expensive and dangerous,” he said, noting that it would require up to six trucks a day for nearly half a year.
Although Triangle has set aside $1.5 million to clean up the ponds, Hill said pumping the waste water back into the earth is still the best option.
However, besides pumping it in the ground or trucking it away, some emerging technologies could make recycling and treating the waste water on site a possibility.
But time is running out.
Hill said heavy rain has filled up the ponds, forcing Triangle to truck some of the waste water away to avoid flooding.
While Errington said the ponds don’t pose an immediate threat to the environment, she said the province does expect Triangle to clean up the ponds soon.
Hill said the lack of co-operation has made developing shale gas in Nova Scotia less attractive, making it harder to bring in a partner for the next phase of drilling.
In order for Triangle to invest capital in the province, Hill said the company “needs to have the support of society and govern­ment and” regulators.
“We are not going to start work if we can’t get a clear under­standing of what the rules and regulations are with disposed fluids and the whole concept of hydraulic fracking.”
Hill, an avid fly fisherman whose hobbies include bird­watching, said the company would not make decisions that would “wreck the environment.”
Nonetheless, the junior exploration company, which has spent $34 million in the province, has to “monetize” its activities for its shareholders.
Triangle estimates the potential size of its shale gas find in Hants County at 69 trillion cubic feet.
Industry observers have noted that if only 10 per cent of the resource was put into production, it would still provide twice as much gas as the Sable offshore gas project.
In 2009, Triangle negotiated a 10-year lease that runs until 2019 with a renewal clause in 2014.
(bbundale@herald.ca)

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