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Battling Big Oil in Alberta

When Jessica Ernst discovered that her community’s drinking water had been contaminated by fracking, she decided to sue energy giant Encana

An excerpt from Slick Water

By Andrew Nikiforuk

Near the end of the summer, Encana invited Rosebud residents to a day of golf and theater. The occasion, the invitation said, would give “Rosebud residents and Encana employees” a chance “to mix, mingle and get to know each other in a relaxing and casual atmosphere.” After a game on the green, the minglers would watch a Rosebud Theatre production of The Village of Idiots. To Ernst, the whole thing sounded like a corporate PR ploy to “come on down, play golf with the devil and shut up.” Another three CBM wells had been drilled north of her property. Given the incessant noise from the drilling and the compressors, Ernst replied to Encana’s invitation tartly.

Photo of Drilling in AlbertaPhoto by Energold-company When Jesicca Ernst realized she could light her drinking water on fire, she began looking into testing the water for methane.

Why, she demanded, did the company want to “mingle and play with me” when it hadn’t yet solved “the compressor noise impacts in my home”? Instead of buying the community theater tickets, she suggested, it would be more useful for the company to spend money “to adequately plan and mitigate the negative cumulative effects of CBM fracking before they happen.” 

By now, Ernst’s water taps ran black bits of coal. The water felt slick to the touch. Ernst often rubbed her thumb and finger together as she washed dishes, wondering, “Why is my water slippery?” Lightly steamed vegetables and boiled pasta seemed to disintegrate. An odd pink bacteria-like slime had also appeared in her toilet.

On September 9, 2005, the compressors woke up Ernst so violently at 4 a.m. that she grabbed the phone. She called Stacy Knull, Encana’s vice president for the region, waking both Knull and his wife. She gave him an earful: you can’t use bad science and fudge data, she said, to repair a noise problem that could have been avoided with proper attenuation in the first place. The two talked about solutions. Ernst suggested moving the compressors. Knull didn’t think that was a good idea. Ernst asked how she could ethically sell her place with so many “shit noisemakers” in the neighborhood. At that point, Knull offered to buy her property: “We will buy your place, so that the noise problem becomes ours... Do you understand?”

The buyout offer caught Ernst by surprise. She told Knull she didn’t think it was right for her to have to change her life just because of Encana’s bad planning. Her house had stood along the river for twenty-five years before the compressors arrived. “The problem is Encana’s and only Encana’s,” she insisted. But she promised to give Knull’s proposition serious thought. 

Shortly afterward, Ernst’s heavy oil geologist friend and his wife visited for dinner. At the kitchen table, the geologist immediately noticed the agitated state of the water in Ernst’s drinking glasses. The couple had sipped Ernst’s well water many times before and found it beautiful and clear. Now it was acting like ginger ale and spitting out of the glasses. The geologist said he had never seen such crazy effervescence. Knowing that groundwater doesn’t change that dramatically unless something catastrophic has happened in the aquifer, he urged Ernst to get her water tested right away. The fog coming out of her taps might be CO2, the geologist added, but he wasn’t sure. After that evening, Ernst and her nephew, Derek, started to do some serious Internet reading about gases and water. The nineteen-year-old, who loved to wander along the Rosebud River looking for frogs and muskrats, often visited his aunt on the weekend. There were problems at home, and Rosebud had become Derek’s refuge. After his visits now, though, Derek’s eyes ran and itched for a few days. He wondered if his eye problems had something to do with his auntie’s well water. Ernst’s eyes were also chronically irritated when she was at home, she realized. Her skin turned bright red after a shower or bath, but she had attributed that blotching to menopause.

Through a Google search, aunt and nephew came across a 1982 pamphlet called “Methane in Water Wells,” put out by the Michigan Department of Public Health. Methane is lighter than air, they learned. It will mix with water at low temperatures but gas off at temperatures above 42 degrees Fahrenheit. Water wells underneath the Antrim and Coldwater shales in the northern part of Michigan sometimes collected small amounts of nitrogen and methane, said the pamphlet. (Despite much opposition, Encana would later frack these formations, too.) Testing for methane was simple, said the flyer. All you needed was “a plastic, narrow-mouthed milk carton and a book of matches.” 

For a lark one evening, the two became experimenters and gave it a try. Ernst filled a plastic jug with well water, then placed her hand over the mouth of the bottle for a few minutes. (When she learned later that methane molecules are small enough to pass through the skin, she stopped using her hand as a cap.) The pamphlet had promised that “the presence of methane will result in a brief wisp of blue or yellow flame.” But that’s not what Ernst and her nephew beheld. “The bottle took off like a rocket in my hands,” recalls Ernst. Half of the jug melted. The two looked at each other in disbelief. Derek later flew into an uncharacteristic rage. “Auntie, this is our water. This is our place!”

In between work assignments, Ernst made more inquiries about testing for methane in water. She also asked Encana what the terms for a buyout would be. A company lawyer replied that three appraisers (two chosen by Encana and one by Ernst) would view her property and that the company would pay the average of the three estimates. It would also pay for her to move. In return, the lawyer told her, “You sign a release of Encana and all of its affiliates from and against any and all claims, actions, causes of action, damages, losses (including but not limited to loss of income and loss of business) and expenses.” Given the fiery state of her groundwater, a public resource, Ernst decided to ask for more information first. Before signing anything, she wanted a list of fracking chemicals used by the company, the names of other landowners who had filed water complaints, and any reports completed for Encana on problem gas wells within a five-kilometer radius of her property.

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