How Canada's Become a Home for Some of the Biggest Fracking Projects
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But in 2007, a government research agency concluded it was unlikely that drilling had affected her water. The final report said the chemicals found were not typically used in coalbed methane drilling, and that one had probably come from a plastic tube used to test the water.
Ernst wasn't satisfied with the province's response, however. The government's report concluded that the methane in her well might be occurring naturally because tests showed similar levels of gas in nearby wells. But the tests were conducted after Ernst noticed the changes in her water -- she saw the results as an indication that the contamination might be more widespread.
The government's report also ignored evidence provided by one of its own analysts, a professor of geochemistry at the University of Alberta. When Karlis Muehlenbachs analyzed the gas in Ernst's well for Alberta Environment and Water, he found ethane, a gas often found with methane, with a chemical signature indicating that it had come from deep underground, below the depth of the well. Muehlenbachs told ProPublica that the ethane's signature meant that it could not have been there naturally. He said he is convinced that it resulted from drilling.
As Ernst searched for answers to what happened to her water, she unearthed evidence of other problems related to drilling. She found an Alberta Environment and Water report that listed cases in which the fracking of shallow wells resulted in gas or fluid leaking into nearby gas wells or spraying into the air. She also found government gas well records that said Encana had fracked into the aquifer that supplies her water well.
"The community was used as a test tube,"she said. "I was used as a test tube."
Earlier this year, Ernst sued Encana, Alberta Environment and Water and the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board, which regulates drilling, alleging that Encana's drilling was negligent and that the government agencies had covered up the company's contamination and failed to enforce regulations.
Ernst, who is asking for about $33 million Canadian in damages and return of wrongful profits, has vowed she will not accept a settlement that includes a confidentiality agreement, as others have done.
"Somebody has to do this,"she said.
Alan Boras, a spokesman for Encana, said the company would not comment on the case.
The Energy Resources Conservation Board denied a request for an interview. In written responses to questions, spokesman Bob Curran said he could not comment on the specifics of Ernst's case, but the agency is confident it has conducted itself appropriately.
Carrie Sancartier, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment and Water, would not comment on Ernst's allegations because of the lawsuit but said there have been no confirmed cases of gas drilling contaminating water wells in the province.
Muehlenbachs, whose work has been used in several government investigations, said that is "simply false." He said he's analyzed thousands of cases of gas leaking up well bores and knows of at least a dozen cases of water contamination.
Alberta has introduced several measures to safeguard water from shallow drilling. In 2006, it established a buffer zone between shallow gas wells and water wells andrequired drillers to test nearby water wells before drilling into an aquifer.
Nevertheless, last January, as part of a review of drilling regulations, the Energy Resources Conservation Board said shallow fracking poses a risk to groundwater.
Is 'Communication' a Risk?
There have been no reports of groundwater contamination related to new drilling in British Columbia.
Increasingly, however, there are reports of something called "communication" -- events in which a fracture travels through the ground and connects two gas wells.