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17th March 2019

Vaughn Palmer: Scientists highlight regulator failings over fracking projects

'It is important for public confidence that operators are not seen as being rewarded or able to skip important regulatory requirements that are in place to ensure safety.'

VAUGHN PALMER Updated: March 8, 2019

VICTORIA — When the NDP government-appointed scientific panel on fracking visited B.C.’s Northeast last year, one eye-opener was a tour of “a large water storage structure, clearly identifiable as a dam.”

The structure was some 20 metres high and held water for hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the process whereby water is injected deep into the earth to release natural gas locked in rocks.

But though the structure looked like a dam, and stored water like a dam, it was not approved, constructed, regulated or inspected like a dam, as the three scientists on the panel would discover.

Moreover, it was missing a key safety component of a proper dam, particularly one estimated to be the height of a five-storey building.

“It was observed at the large dam visited by the panel that there did not appear to be any spillway or outlet facility built with the dam,” the trio wrote in a draft version of their report. “Spillways/outlets are a critical component of a large earth dam to protect against overfilling and overtopping of the dam due to heavy precipitation, which can subsequently lead to a runaway process of erosion of the dam material, breach, and catastrophic failure.”

Which is pretty much what happened with a privately owned earthen dam near Oliver a decade ago, according to the panel. The Testalinden Dam “failed in part due to an insufficient or blocked spillway that led to the overtopping of the dam.”

Result: $9 million in damages, mostly absorbed by provincial taxpayers, but happily no fatalities or injuries, even though the resulting debris torrent spewed through a populated part of the Okanagan.

The scientific panel’s final report is now in the hands of Energy Minister Michelle Mungall, who has yet to decide on a release date.

“It’s very technical,” she told the legislature this week. “With 97 recommendations, over 200 pages, we owe it to British Columbians to make sure that we do our due diligence in analyzing that report so that we can deliver good public policy for all of B.C.”

Still, one can get a good sense of the findings from the draft version of the report, leaked last week to columnist Les Leyne of the Victoria Times Colonist.

Overall, the panel found there is lot the provincial government doesn’t know — and needs to find out — about the environmental, safety and public health risks associated with fracking.

It also flagged a number of specific concerns needing fixes, such as the case of the dam that was not considered a dam.

Back in 2013, the provincial government transferred the approval process for structures for storing fracking water from the Lands and Natural Resources Ministry to the Oil and Gas Commission.

But where the ministry had an office in charge of dam safety and inspections, the commission had none. And this happened at a time when the industry was shifting from below-ground water storage — in what were known as dug outs — to above ground storage — what were effectively dams.

“In this transfer of responsibilities,” according to expert testimony to the panel, “it was apparently missed that the licence applications to the commission should include detailed specifications as to how the water was going to be stored — dug out or dam.”

First Nations in the northeast were also kept in the dark about the switch. The storage structures “were described as pits in the licence applications when sent to First Nations for review,” according to the panel.

The regulatory lapse was not discovered until 2016, at which time the commission was finally given specific authority to approve and inspect dams.

During that three-year fall into the regulatory cracks, more than 50 earth dams of various sizes and storage capacity were constructed, apparently without proper oversight, approvals or inspections.

The commission has since been moving to rectify the earlier lapses with inspections of existing structures, some of which are being decommissioned.

“It is recognized that the regulatory failures that allowed these dams to be construction without proper oversight have since been corrected,” acknowledges the panel in its report.

But for all the regulatory improvements, there remain problems on the ground. The panel heard concerns about six new dams being constructed in the last two years, three with capacity of greater than 100,000 cubic metres of water and one rated at 200,000.

It was also told about problems that have not been rectified with existing dams, amid suggestions that the industry was being let off the hook.

“It is important for public confidence that operators are not seen as being rewarded or able to skip important regulatory requirements that are in place to ensure safety and avoid significant impacts to the environment, by being ignorant or wilfully disregarding regulatory requirements and statutes,” wrote the trio of scientists.

They further cautioned that “it is important that these dams are not forgotten or fall into a state of neglect from non-use, and that they are properly decommissioned before they become a liability for the province.”

“Given current issues with orphan wells,“ continued the panel, “it is important to avoid a future problem with orphan dams.”

Orphan natural gas wells, abandoned through bankruptcy or left behind by companies that moved on, were another concern highlighted by the panel.

The scientists heard that there are more than 300 of those in B.C., and only a dozen and a half have been properly rehabilitated.