Sunday, September 14, 2014

Regulatory Excellence (not!)

In several newspaper articles Ms Susanna Fuller, of the Ecology Action Centre, has floated the notion of regulatory excellence: that the citizens of Nova Scotia would be much more willing to entertain resource development if they thought that the government would protect the environment and a citizen's right to have clean air, clean water, and an un-despoiled landscape.  Comments at public meetings of the Wheeler Commission on fracking seemed to show a very high level of distrust of government's ability to protect the environment, and the same attitudes were on display at recent public meetings to discuss the disposal of treated fracking wastewater now sitting in lagoons in Kennetcook.

Folks have it right. They have all seen the mess at the Sydney Tar Ponds, the clearcutting of our forests, the proposals to create monstrous quarries, open pit mining in Pictou County, the unimaginable smell from the rendering plant in Lower Truro, and the smog and pollution from the Northern Pulp operation that assaults Pictou County every day.

Here's my story. How many remember the mess when the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline went though the province? Here's what the Wallace River in Cumberland County looked like after the pipeline went through:

The Wallace River

The M&N pipeline runs from the shores of Guysborough County through to New Brunswick and on into Maine. Its purpose is to carry offshore gas to markets in New England.This was our first big pipeline project in Nova Scotia, and there was a great deal of excitement because it meant lots of jobs, the prospect of royalty monies for the province and incredible tax revenue for the rural municipalities.

The preparation for this project was very impressive. Everywhere that earth was disturbed there were hay bales and fabric fences to keep run-off water from the waterways. Down at the Wallace River they made a temporary bridge across the river and lined the underside with fabric so that any dirt falling from vehicles would not reach the water.
Wallace River

And then the construction crews drilled holes in the river bottom, installed their explosives and carved a trench into the bottom of the river. The river bottom was "supposed" to be sandstone, and there would be big chunks displaced which would sink to the bottom and the river would run clean. Instead, the geology was "mudstone", which the explosives immediately transformed into incredibly fine silt, which turned the river brown. A farmer cutting hay just downstream from the site told me that he heard the explosions and went down to the river to look, and saw a tide of "chocolate milk" flowing downtream. The silt plume easily reached the Wallace Bay ( 5 km) and flowed out towards the Northumberland Strait, fouling mussel farms as it went.

Wallace River
At this point the contractors sent their excavators in to the trench to shape it and deepen it, and then they laid their pipe, and then they covered it over with 6 or 8 feet of rock and gravel. During this whole time the river ran freely through the cut and the silt continued to flow. These images of muddy water are not pictures of still water, like a mud puddle. This is flowing water, and the silt suspended in the river water is new silt. The whole process took four or five days, and then they moved on.

Best practice for crossing rivers with pipelines is very different. When they crossed our large rivers the crews actually tunnelled beneath the riverbed and there was no interference with the waterflow. When crossing our upland rivers the crews should have created a sluice that carried the water past the cut. Our upland rivers are rocky and shallow, and in many places if would be possible to wade across the river in summers. But there is still a lot of water flowing through. The crews should have made a dam above the crossing and sluiced the water past the open cut, so they could lay their pipe, cover it up and only then let the river flow again.

One of the pipeline workers was heard to say that "we could never have gotten away with this back home" (Alberta).

The Maritmes and Northeast Pipeline crossed eleven different rivers in this way.

Wallace River

The federal Fisheries and Ocean guys were all over these sites but they were powerless to act. It may have been because the siltation was all being caused low in the river, well below the shallow spawning grounds upriver. One man did tell me that they managed to make the contractors improve their performance somewhat by the time they reached the last of the rivers to be trenched.

The Nova Scotia Department of the Environment should have been shutting down all of these worksites, but they weren't. The local officer told me blandly that the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline contractors "got bad advice from their subcontractors" about the geology of the crossing sites, and "we can't hold them responsible for that". That kind of attitude just enables a whole chain of non-responsibility from top to bottom.

I was told that Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline saved $250,000 per river crossing by trenching the rivers and letting the water run through the cut. They paid off a few mussel growers in Wallace Bay and they donated a few thousand to River Enhancement organisations with each river they fouled, and they saved between $2  million and $3 million on those crossings alone.

Wallace River

So what are the odds that the Nova Scotia Department of the Environment will protect our rivers and waters and lands from fracking operators? Who wants to put the future of their well water in the hands of a Department of Environment official who can so casually dismiss the damage with a shrug and talk of "bad advice"?


Here's what a fracking site looks like in Penobsquis, NB, courtesy of Corridor Resources:
Courtesy Corridor Resources.
Used without permission.
As explained by Cleve Higgins here, resource development companies have expropriation powers, so a fracking contractor could set up this pad on what used to be your land, next to your house. In the USA there are many examples of drilling sites located within 200 metres of housing subdivisions. They operate around the clock, with many trucks coming and going to bring water and diesel fuel and to carry away spent fracking fluids and wastewater. The lights burn all night. Diesel generators run all the time. Huge diesel powered compressors run in tandem to create the pressure needed to fracture the earth many thousands of feet below the surface.

And what about all the water they need? Will they pump it from the aquifer that also feeds your well, or will they just drop their suction hoses into the deep hole by the bridge where your kids swim all summer?

Who do you trust to protect your land and water and air? There are lots of promises made when these projects are being touted, but how many of those promises are kept? When the route for the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline was first announced there were many open houses where company officials made many promises, including the one that the pipeline right-of-way would be fenced and policed and would not be available for travel. Of course, the right-of-way is now the principal ATV and snowmobile highway through northern Nova Scotia and nearby landowners fear for the safety of their homes and woodlots. And all those river crossings? The ATV's ford the rivers right there, and no-one is ever charged.

I think that the Department of Environment staff out in the field are determined to do their jobs carefully and well, in part because they are good folk and in part because they live in our communities too. They are breathing the foul air in Pictou and Lower Truro, just like us.

What I worry about are the deals made between resource developers and high-level bureaucrats and politicians in Halifax. That's where the corners are cut and regulations gutted, and that's where the wink-wink game is played. "Of course we'll be careful with your waterways. wink wink"

The media pundits in Halifax have been having a delightful time criticizing our Minister of Energy for vowing to ban fracking for the foreseeable future, but they don't ever have to fear the Pockwock water supply watershed being fracked for natural gas. Likewise, they are not going to have a drilling pad on the lot across the street from their homes.

So why don't we have a look at what regulatory excellence would entail? Ms Fuller was a commissioner with Mr Ivany's One Nova Scotia project and she has seen many public meetings and many private ones also. She might be just the person to help with this project. And perhaps it is time to resurrect the Voluntary Economic Planning commission.

Voluntary Planning was a mechanism whereby the provincial government could establish an enquiry to determine the people's suggestions and opinions on matters of public interest. The government pays for modest staff resources and some expenses and there is provision in the legislation for paying the head of the group, but most of the work is done by volunteers. And it is very good work, ably done. The report that I remember most recently was a tour de force on the future development and care of natural resources in the province. The group prepared a very practical, detailed, comprehensive view of the citizens' preferred approaches on these matters, and the NDP government of the day hired a tame consultant to prepare an opposing view, and then shelved the people's choice. And to drive the point home, then Deputy Premier Frank Corbett, a fatuous and small man, collapsed the whole Voluntary Planning organisation down to a desk in some government department, saying, famously, "why should we pay for advice we don't want?"  (It gave me great pleasure to note that the people gave the NDP some more advice on election day 2013.)

So how about the present Nova Scotia provincial government re-establish Voluntary Planning and ask that group to determine what regulatory excellence would look like. The Wheeler commission on fracking recommended that fracking not be allowed unless there was general support from the people in the communities involved. And that's not going to happen until folks have confidence in the regulatory process: that it is fair, and transparent, and that there is some timely redress for infractions.

I can show you what regulatory excellence doesn't look like: like this.
Wallace River

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