Watch the Film! Cecil Lewis’ story is part of a series of short films on hydraulic fracturing and other oil and gas issues featured on AlbertaVoices.
Cecil Lewis rummages through some old documents in her new home in the seniors’ residence. They are drilling reports from 1991 for three water wells just west of Athabasca where Cecil and her late husband, Bentley, lived until 2011. Even years later, she gets right into the story and goes straight to the heart of the matter.
The old well near the barns had been a good one when she and Bentley moved back to the farm in 1982, she says. Less than a decade later, though, it had dried right up. Not wanting to fool around, they drilled a full 42-inch well bore in its place. They found lots of water about 40 feet down, says Cecil, but it “was polluted with some sort of substance, which looked like oil.”
“It was like sludge,” she says.
The driller’s report confirms this and notes that the second well was also “abandoned because of oil.” Cecil explains that they drilled a narrower bore on the third try, casing it as they went down through the contaminated strata and into a deeper aquifer 110 feet down.
She mentions that neighbours in the area had attributed other problems with their water wells to seismic activities, but “it was never proven.” However, this didn’t explain the used oil appearing in the Lewis’s water.
“We called many, many people,” says Cecil, “to do with the environment, and government people.” They were given a “real run-around,” she says, and there was always “just another number to phone.”
When a crew did finally show up to test the water, they only drilled as far as the first coal seam, which they cited as the source of the oil, says Cecil. The driller’s reports indicate that the contaminated water would have been found in a deeper stratum below the coal. Cecil also notes that they drilled the test well in the farthest corner of their property.
“We finally got a verbal assumption that the substance was used oil,” says Cecil, “but we could never get anybody to put that in writing, just that the results of their testing was inconclusive.” She wonders if “maybe they were afraid to find out what it was.”
It was an experience that had Bentley “very frustrated, to say the least.”
“At that point we forgot about it,” she laughs.
She says that a geo-physical crew that had been by the farm a few times said “the whole area was polluted.”
Bruce Jackson, who is a Keepers of the Water member in addition to his role as Cecil’s pastor, is there listening to her story and is reminded of the fact that “naturally occurring oil” is often cited as the source of contamination in the lower section of the Athabasca River.
But neither Cecil nor Bentley understood how a natural coal seam could be responsible for the presence of used oil in their water, so they did a little bit of their own detective work. A couple of miles up the aquifer, there is a waste injection well that has been in operation since as long as Cecil can remember and she suspects that this is the source of contamination.
When it comes to injecting wastes, “It’s kind of like shoot, shovel and shut-up,” says Bruce.
“Often, I’m told that I exaggerate things,” says Bruce, “that I don’t have the science. The sacred word, science. We have the science. But if you don’t test for something, you don’t have the science. It’s what you don’t test for. It’s the sin of omission… ‘It can’t be our fault because we didn’t know what was going to be happening.’ They don’t commit any sins anymore, because they don’t know.”
“We went as far as we could to find an answer,” says Cecil, “and finally gave up on it, but I’m sure that there’s still problems in that area.”
“We would have liked to have found out for sure what it was… If it is used oil, then something should be done.”
Waste injection wells are often used to dispose of hydraulic fracturing flowback fluids.
– Hans Asfeldt, June 5