Gas in area causing tainted water

Gas in area causing tainted water by Hanneke Brooymans, January 18, 2008, The Edmonton Journal

Gas in area causing tainted water — report

One of the landowners whose well water was cleared of industry-related contamination fears she will have to move because she can’t afford to have water trucked in to her farm.

Alberta Environment has concluded that there is no connection between the water well concerns of private landowners and nearby coalbed methane development. The department notified the families involved that water delivery costs would no longer be covered, something that had been paid for while the situation was being investigated.

Fiona Lauridsen said the water trucked in for her family’s use costs at least $2,000 a month.

About two years ago, her well water became contaminated with methane. Lauridsen, her husband and their three children got dry, red, itchy skin from bathing in it. The water also became undrinkable. “People can’t swallow it,” she said. “They spit it out, it’s so disgusting.”

Lauridsen’s farm is close to Rosebud, a small community about 100 kilometres northeast of Calgary.

The area became a hot spot for coalbed methane drilling a few years ago and some residents were concerned there was a connection between the drilling activity and the sudden appearance of methane in their water.

Lauridsen and at least one other Rosebud resident, Jessica Ernst, had so much methane in their water, they could set it on fire.

But a review by the Alberta Research Council states that “… energy development projects in the areas most likely have not adversely affected the complainant water wells.”

Three of the complaints were in the Rosebud/Redland area, while the fourth was in the Wetaskiwin area.

Alec Blyth, the hydrogeologist and isotope geochemist who wrote the report, said they would have got methane in their wells even if there hadn’t been any coalbed methane drilling activity in their area.

Blyth said the water wells were drilled into a coal zone and when that’s done you’re eventually going to get methane gas. Certain things, such as drought or a neighbour suddenly using more water than normal, can draw down the level of water in an aquifer, releasing the gas.

Blyth also used a type of fingerprinting of gas molecules, called isotopic analysis, that allowed him to see where different types of gas molecules came from. The results did not point in the direction of the recent drilling activity.

“The problem with assigning blame is that in these regions there have been several generations of drilling,” said Karlis Muehlenbachs, a University of Alberta scientist who has expertise in isotopic analysis.

Alberta Liberal environment critic Dr. David Swann said the situation with these wells points to the need for a good, solid independent scientific review of our groundwater and the impact of resource activity versus natural contamination.

“This is not about blame. It is about investing and using good science to tell us where are we at and how can we make sure our lifeblood is properly protected.”

Ernst, who asked Alberta Environment to investigate her contaminated well in early 2006, said she has no confidence in the review because of the way the testing was done.

Now she thinks Alberta’s groundwater is seriously at risk.

But industry says the report backs up what they’ve been saying all along about how they’ve been acting responsibly.

“The unconventional gas industry, we know that Albertans are concerned about water quality and it’s important that any concern about the possibility of a connection between our activities and water wells be raised and investigated,” said Mike Dawson, president of the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas, which represents coalbed methane producers.

Dawson noted there are more than 11,000 coalbed methane wells in the province now.

EnCana spokesman Alan Boras said the company was pleased to see the Alberta Environment study results are consistent with the industry’s environmental practices, which are aimed at having no impact on water wells.

And Bob Curran, a spokesman for the Energy Resources Conservation Board, said it shows what the former Alberta Energy and Utilities Board had been saying all along, that their regulations are protective of groundwater.

There was a fifth well that showed signs of being affected by conventional oil and gas development or a natural geological feature, such as a fault, Alberta Environment said. Work will continue to determine the specific source.

Meanwhile Ernst and Lauridsen said they will read the report over thoroughly before they figure out what to do next.

“I don’t know what to do,” Ernst added. “How do you fight the entire Alberta government and EnCana?”

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