Watch the Film! Brian Nelson’s story is part of a series of short films on hydraulic fracturing and other oil and gas issues featured on AlbertaVoices.
Brian Nelson has lived on the family farm in the Camrose area all his life. “We’re three, going on four generations,” he says. He ran a dairy operation and has had cattle for years. He eventually sold the cattle and is now retired. A few years ago, he was approached by a seismic testing company. Not comfortable with the unknown impacts the activity might have, Brian was “not terribly anxious to have the oil or gas companies come on” or to sign the $5,000 contract. In the end, “They were blasting all around the home quarter, and those shockwaves don’t stop at a property line.” The Nelsons’ land was going to be affected regardless.
“Whatever blasting they were going to do was basically going to affect the sub-strata underneath my farm anyway, and I thought well it’s not like I have a lot of choice anyway. I can take the moral high road, or I can take the cash, so I took the cash.”
The Nelson’s water had always been high in sulfur dioxide, but not long after the seismic testing, the stink intensified to the extent that they could no longer drink their water. Brian says that in hindsight, he should have done his “due diligence”, done more research, and done his own testing because unfortunately, the seismic company had failed to include sulfur dioxide in its testing. Without baseline data, he has no way to prove that his water quality has deteriorated. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, Brian is quite convinced that the fact that his water has been altered by the seismic activity.
“I started noticing, through my nose, that our water stunk more than ever. And I’ve been drinking that water 40 years or more of my life, and I think I know when a change has occurred, but I had nothing on paper and no scientific proof.”
In addition to the impacts on the Nelsons’ water quality, their water well collapsed. Brian says there is no proof of a connection here either, and is clear that this might be mere coincidence given the age of the well. He had to pay $15,000 to drill a new water well. This time, he was sure to drill an extra couple hundred feet to get beneath the coal seam.
As much as these impacts concern him, Brian’s real issue is with the “cavalier attitude” of some oil and gas companies. He is irritated by the increased heavy traffic that accompanies any new oil well in the area and destroys the roads. The bright flaring that sometimes occurs nearby is not ideal either. “There’s always just this huge glow in the sky. I’m an astronomer, and when they’re flaring, you might as well just move into town,” says Brian. These things are irritating, but he can tolerate them.
“Once they’re gone, everything sort of settles down again, and you sort of pretend that nothing happened and … it’s done and you move on. Eventually they’re going to run out of oil and gas in this area and then everybody will go away and we’ll get back to normal.”
What is less tolerable though, is when the seismic testing company failed to leave the Nelsons’ property the way they found it. When Brian went to inspect his property once the company had left, he was surprised to find piles of beer cans littering his hay fields. Perimeter fences had been cut and left unrepaired. When he requested that the crew return and clean up, he was told that the company had moved on and was not interested in coming back. They offered to send him a check instead, even though Brian had explained he didn’t want any money, he just wanted his fences fixed.
“The attitude that money solves everything, and makes you happy, isn’t really quite true.”
“I got paid pretty well to pick up some beer cans and fix some fences, but I didn’t think it was a very good way to enter into a relationship with a landowner.”
For Brian, the issue goes deeper than contaminated drinking water, collapsed wells, piles of beer cans, and unrepaired fences. “We don’t really own this land,” he says, “this land isn’t really mine… I’m not going to be here forever, my kids won’t be here forever, but the land will be here forever.” Even had these problems not arisen from the seismic testing, Brian says he still would have preferred not to have had it done. He says it changes the sub-strata beneath his farm and that there is no way of knowing what the impacts will be.
“Once those geological structures are disturbed, you’re stuck with it. You can’t dig it up and fix it.”
“Anything I do affects me, my family, hopefully my future family members, my community, my neighbours, and just whether this whole piece of property will still have worth in the future, which is different from value. Worth is not money. Worth is ‘a good piece of land when I’m done with it’— and not just good at making money. The oil and gas industry tends to come in, do something, and leave. And I think you have to have a much longer view…”
Brian shows us his land. We walk across the creek that runs naturally through his property. He tells us how important it is that the spring flow does not gush through trenches but that it instead meanders slowly through filtering vegetation. It is easy to see that he loves living on the farm. He says that parts of his land have gone unchanged for thousands of years.
-Hans Asfeldt, May 25