Warnings in Penobsquis cast doubt on government’s ability to regulate shale gas

Written by Tracy Glynn on February 21, 2013

Herman Hawthorne of Penobsquis looking at the first wells drilled on the first gas well pad in his community in June 2012. These wells were drilled in 2000 and 2001. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

Herman Hawthorne of Penobsquis looking at Corridor’s gas operations in his community. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

Fredericton – A gas leak at the PotashCorp mine in Penobsquis in February combined with confirmation that no air quality monitoring is being done in the rural community throws into question whether the New Brunswick government can regulate the shale gas industry.

After five months of waiting for the New Brunswick government to answer an official request for information, CCNB Action has confirmed what people in Penobsquis had suspected: there is no permanent air quality monitoring station in Penobsquis.

“How can the public, who are having shale gas exploration and development forced onto them, feel good about regulations for a new industry when we know the government does not have a handle on enforcing existing requirements?” asks Stephanie Merrill, CCNB Action’s spokesperson on shale gas.

Merrill said that this information reveals systemic problems in the way that the provincial government monitors air quality and discloses that information to the public.

Documents obtained by CCNB Action reveal that PotashCorp’s mining operations and Corridor Resources’ gas operations in Penobsquis are not required to operate and maintain a ground-level air quality monitoring station and report air quality on an hourly or daily basis, which is required in the Clean Air Act.

“We don’t know what’s in the air in here, what we are smelling and not smelling,” says Beth Nixon, a resident of Penobsquis. Nixon argues that the government needs to implement a permanent air quality monitoring station in Penobsquis and disclose the results to the community on a regular basis.

Within six kilometres of the centre of Penobsquis, a small rural community located next to Sussex, are two potash mines (one in production, one in construction), 16 gas well pads, 30 gas wells (unconventional shale and tight gas wells), two natural gas compressor stations that flare, a drill rig site, a grouting station, an oil well, a brine pipeline that hauls water from the potash mine to the Bay of Fundy, approximately 17 km of pipelines, trucks that haul water to the Port of Saint John, and at least 12 gravel pits.

Inka Milewski, CCNB’s Health Watch Advisor is concerned about what could be in the air in Penobsquis and the lack of government oversight. “Volatile Organic Carbons (VOCs) in the air at gas production sites are a major public health concern. The government must rectify this problem immediately before gas exploration goes to full-scale gas production in Penobsquis,” says Milewski.

The government’s lack of requirements for public review or comment periods for projects that fall under a Class 4 licence, such as Corridor’s natural gas conditioning plant and well pads in Penobsquis, concerns Milewski.

“The province must end this loophole and require public review and comment periods for approvals to operate gas operations. The lack of air quality monitoring in Penobsquis was only noted after our freedom of information request to government, years after the approval had been granted to Corridor,” adds Milewski.

Milewski says the government is taking a further step back by proposing amendments to the Clean Air Act which would exempt Class 4 licenses from needing any government approval to operate.

The bad air days in Penobsquis coincided with the release of the government of New Brunswick’s guidelines for shale gas on Feb. 15th in Fredericton.

Shale gas opponents say that the guidelines largely consist of conditions on a shale gas company’s approval to operate. “These conditions are only enforceable as the government sees fit, which may include orders to comply or a fine. Gas companies prefer conditions over being regulated as they are very easy to change, manipulate or skirt. The violation of conditions is more difficult to prove legally, making it less likely that a company will be charged,” says Merrill.

Potential interference by government ministers on the conditions to operate and the government acting as intervenor on complaints also concern Merrill: “The government is clearly in a conflict of interest here. They are encouraging expansion of the industry and perusing increased royalties while playing judge and jury on behalf of communities when they have a complaint with industry. We saw how the recent mining commissioner hearings was stacked against the people of Penobsquis in their case against PotashCorp.”

Shale gas opponents argue that the best regulations in the world will not protect people from the dangers associated with fracking for shale gas. They point to Penobsquis as an example of how the government is failing to protect its citizens from mining and gas operations.

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