What began as one couple’s simple fishing trip has become another shale gas nightmare for the beleaguered first-term Conservative government of David Alward.
In mid-July, Tina Beers and her husband John went fishing near Harcourt, and caught a shale gas drill rig stuck in environmentally sensitive wetlands that the provincial government had been promising to protect only 60 days earlier. Beers is the chairperson of the Harcourt Local Services District (LSD), on which John also serves.
Alarmed by the obvious damage to the wetlands, the Beers called the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB). That’s when the full extent of the government’s flip-flop on the wetlands was revealed. CCNB Freshwater Program Director, Stephanie Merrill, was informed by the Department of Environment and Local Government that SWN Resources Canada had been given a permit to work in wetlands and watercourse buffers in eight counties (Albert, Kent, Kings, Northumberland, Queens, Sunbury, Westmorland and York).
Merrill says the wetlands are “extremely critical” because wetlands function as “the lungs and the kidneys” of the planet. She points out that wetland ecosystems are vital to “regulating the flow and filtering the water” all New Brunswickers depend on. “Letting industry into wetlands is the exact opposite of what New Brunswick needs,” Merrill says, adding that “extreme pressure” from industry has resulted in the Alward government sacrificing environmental protection to short-term political considerations.
The decision to open the wetlands to SWN had been made quietly in April, and it has left both local residents and environments feeling angry and betrayed. Just two months earlier, the Alward government had been loudly proclaiming that its new rules and regulations for shale gas development would protect wetlands and other critically sensitive ecological areas. Beers says she was “shocked” to learn how easy it is for industry to get permission to be in the wetlands.
About 35 kilometres northeast of Harcourt along the northern edge of the Richibucto River Basin, St. Charles LSD chair, Al Marsh, says giving gas companies “a green light” to enter the wetlands shows just how serious the “disconnect” between Premier Alward and residents of Kent County really is. Marsh says people in the St. Charles area are very angry about what they see going on. After personally fighting shale gas development for three years, Marsh is frustrated and says he intends to run as an independent MLA in the provincial election next year.
“The wetlands are an extremely sensitive area,” Marsh says. “If my livestock gets in a creek or a farmer cultivates in the wrong area, we get fined. But the Department of the Environment doesn’t see any problem with letting industrial equipment with oil, grease, hydraulic and brake fluids and all sorts of industrial contaminants plough around in the wetlands.”
He points to shellfish beds with oysters, mussels and soft-shell clams where the St. Charles River empties into the Richibucto River, and similar shellfish beds at the mouth of the Richibucto River. The peculiarities of the two tidal rivers means shale gas pollution in either river will destroy the shellfish beds in both.
“It’s not only environmentalists,” Marsh says. “Farmers here are scared to death too. A single water well can cost $10,000, and many people have two or three, so even one mishap by SWN is a potential catastrophe that could ruin families and entire communities.” He notes the nature of the watershed itself means there’s simply no way safely to allow shale gas companies or heavy industry into the area.
Marsh explains that he and his neighbour have three wells within 120 feet of each other. Water testing has revealed that each of those three wells draws water from a different underground aquifer. “One mistake and they could ruin three aquifers at once,” Marsh says, adding that shale gas exploration and exploitation, if allowed, will be “New Brunswick’s own Chernobyl.”