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The Unknowns of Fracking Wastewater: Mediocre regulations set the standard

On Thursday, December 10th, Colchester County approved Atlantic Industrial Servies’ (AIS) application to dispose of 28 million litres of fracking wastewater held in ponds in Debert into the Debert Sewage Treatment plant. While it is acknowledged that the ponds of fracking wastewater cannot sit idle forever, we should not accept solutions that cannot be proved safe at this time.

Fracking wastewater has known compounds, known risks and many, many unknowns. We are not yet able to analyze the mixture of fracking wastewater’s various components. Furthermore, we also lack the ability to predict and fully understand the interactions between components, as well as between those components and the uncontrollable greater environment within watercourses and marine systems. Reactive components can and will be transformed and biotransformed by chemicals and organisms, this may increase or decrease bioavailability and toxicity as they are released beyond the treatment facility. This has the potential to turn this fracking cocktail into a unpredictable mess of compounds, toxic to wildlife, food and water systems.

Flowback water from the fracking process is a highly saline mixture that contains concentrated bromide, chloride, metals such as barium and strontium, and naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs) in the form of radium isotopes[1]. A 2013 study done by Duke University showed that the discharged effluent from a treatment facility located in Pennsylvania increase chloride, bromide and radium downstream – regardless of these elements treated by the facility[2]. The result of this is a decrease in water quality and sediments downstream from the facility. This shows the clear risk of bioaccumulation of contaminants, which can also biomagnify in aquatic food webs, posing threats to wildlife and humans.


Communities, including Colchester, have been keeping AIS at bay for over a year, as recalled by Ken Summers in this article. This deal has been approved, but is far from set in stone. Approval for this is effective as of February 8, 2015. The period to submit appeals has been extended to noon on January 12th, 2015.

Information on how to submit at appeal can be found under Municipal News on the Municipality of Colchester website, and is quoted at the end of this blog. Documentation of the application and approval process as well as information submitted by AIS can be found here, on the Municipality of Colchester website. Tests done by AquaTox Testing and Consulting showed growth inhibition of Flathead Minnow larvae in all concentrations of the mixture. Reproduction and survival of water fleas was also tested. Depending on the concentration it was found survival to be between 0-100% and reproduction varied between being inhibited and stimulated, without following a pattern. It does not take a professional chemist (as I do not claim to be) to notice the variety of effects which this mixture can have on organisms. 

One line we’ve heard over and over, is that the treated wastewater meets standards for municipal sewer systems and Canadian drinking water. The problem with this is, saying that you’ve met Canadian drinking water standards is equivalent to boasting that you’ve met the long jump standards when you’re really entering into the pole-vaulting competition. These standards are in desperate need of an upgrade; there are 105 substances for which other countries regulate that Canada has no standard, ban, or regulation.

There are several reports (such as this one) outlining that fracking chemicals used and produced in the process are not safe. This is not only a matter of potential ecological impacts to be handed down to future generations; it is also a matter of democratic process and accountability of politicians. The Council of Canadians and citizens of Nova Scotia will be watching closely as the Municipal Council evaluates the decision ahead based on the appeals coming in from First Nations, community members, and organizations.

The application by the industry and the approval issued subsequent to the application has been deemed to be of a nature that warrants notification to the general public and this notice has been issued pursuant to Section 3 of the Sewer Use Policy of the Municipality.

Appeals can be filed to the Committee in writing, with the Chief Administrative Officer of the Municipality pursuant to Section 20 of the Sewer Use By-law by December 29, 2014.

Appeals can be mailed to: Municipality of Colchester, Attention Chief Administrative Officer, 1 Church Street, Truro, NS B2N 3Z5, by fax at 902-843-4066, or by email at rummat@colchester.ca

Keep up to date with our Action Alert!

More information on fracking wastewater: http://canadians.org/blog/feds-missing-fracking-wastewater-debate (Blog by Water Campaigner, Emma Lui)

[1] Rowan, E., Engle, M., Kirby, C., and Kraemer, T. Radium content and oil- and gas-field waters in the northern Appalachian Basin (USA) – summary and Discussion of Data: U.S. Geological Survey, Scientific Investigations Report 2011 – 5135; U.S. Geological Survey, 2011.

[2] Warner, N., Christie, C., Jackson, R., and Vengosh, A. (2013). Impacts of Shale Gas Wastewater Disposal in Water Quality in Western Pennsylvania. Environment Science & Technology, 47, pp. 11849-11857.