Commentary by Jim Emberger (Fredericton Gleaner, 7 February 2017)

Donald Trump’s resurrection of the Keystone pipeline has some pundits worried that Energy East may be cancelled. This in turn has some editorialists calling for a return to shale gas as New Brunswick’s saviour.

Apparently they have forgotten that five conditions must be met before the shale gas moratorium can be lifted. New studies furnish examples why those conditions are unlikely to be met.

The Daily Gleaner and CBC news recently reported on a peer-reviewed study from Alberta that concluded fracking wastewater entering waterways from even very small spills causes serious health effects in fish

The University of Alberta scientists note that in Alberta alone there were 2,500 wastewater spills between 2011 and 2014. (This is the province that shale gas supporters cite as setting the standards for ‘best practices.’)

The study used the actual wastewater from an Encana fracked well, not a laboratory simulation. While each frack may use a different mixture of chemicals, the researchers said that the chemicals in this frack were commonly used across the industry.

Despite the industry’s continuing refusal to tell the public what fracking chemicals it uses, it has long been known that spills of fracking wastewater can have devastating effects on aquatic life. A peer-reviewed study in 2013 in Kentucky found that a fracking wastewater spill had killed nearly all the aquatic life in a large area of a creek.

This Canadian study, however, verified that even small, ‘sub-lethal’ amounts (2.5 per cent) of wastewater, such as would enter waterways from nearby pipeline leaks or spills, caused serious damage to the gills and livers of the fish studied, as if the fish had aged prematurely.

It also noted that the chemicals absorbed by the fish included “endocrine disruptors.” These chemicals affect the hormone system and so have serious effects on almost all of the body’s processes, leading to cancer, developmental diseases affecting children and the unborn, reproductive ailments, neurological diseases, and a long list of human health problems.

They cause problems even in miniscule amounts, and the illnesses caused may not produce symptoms for years.

The classic example of their potential threat was the accidental discovery that many fish populations had become ‘feminized’ by endocrine disruptors. By the time it was discovered, large numbers (sometimes 100 per cent) of male fish were carrying eggs in their reproductive organs; a result that the Alberta researchers noted could also come from fracking wastewater.

Importantly, the fracking chemicals reacted with each other and with the naturally existing chemicals in the waste sediment to create new, harmful chemicals.

This goes to the heart of a warning from the landmark study by the Council of Canadian Academies in 2014 that fell on deaf industry ears. It warned that the nearly infinite number of possible combinations among hundreds of known toxic chemicals with hundreds of untested chemicals and naturally occurring chemicals would create new substances with health and ecological effects beyond our ability to predict.

Each fracking mixture thus becomes a game of Russian roulette. But with the growing number of health problems associated with fracking chemicals, the revolver gets loaded with many bullets.

Such threats to our water and health may be worse than we thought. A recent Pennsylvania investigation via a freedom of information request revealed that, over 12 years, the state’s Department of the Environment suppressed nearly 10,000 shale gas complaints — roughly one for each gas well in the state. Nearly half concerned well water contamination.

These new numbers potentially invalidate current conclusions on the extent of water contamination. Equally troubling is that the ratio of complaints to wells increased over time, meaning that the industry and government failed to solve problems or improve practices.

The Canadian wastewater study joins the continually growing list of studies documenting water contamination, health problems, and the large effect that methane has on climate change. The latest methane study found that while methane only stays in the atmosphere a decade or so, its powerful ability to trap heat and warm the oceans (about 85 times greater than carbon dioxide) means that its effect on sea-level rise will be felt for centuries.

Research continues to validate the Gallant government’s maintenance of the moratorium, and particularly, its firm stance on wastewater disposal. To completely reflect the science, the government now only needs to add a climate change test to its five conditions.

We must stop wasting efforts chasing a 20th century dream that some fossil fuel industry or other will save us, and redirect our energy toward realistically planning the province’s future.